What the Soldiers Need

With Obama’s final decision on a troop surge in Afghanistan looming, Bush security adviser Frances Townsend argues that a lack of civilian support for the military may be our Achilles’ heel.

How do we best meet our national security objectives in Afghanistan?

In General McChrystal’s assessment, Afghanistan requires an “integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign.” The general put the request for civilians ahead of the military because it is the most difficult to provide. It is there first because what civilian capacity the U.S. government has to deploy is weak, insufficient to the task, and not deployable in the way it’s required in Afghanistan. We do not have the civilian capacity today and we do not have a good, resourced plan to build it.

Today, our government lacks the civilian capacity to carry out the strategy General McChrystal recommended.

Al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan understand our need for civilian support, which explains why they attacked and killed six U.N. workers in Kabul in October. As a result, the UN pulled out 600 of its 1,100 staff. The UN withdrawal is a win for our enemies and will only serve to further embolden and encourage them.

Today, our government lacks the civilian capacity to carry out the strategy General McChrystal recommended. There is no one senior civilian coordinator in Afghanistan equivalent to Gen. McChrystal for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). No one has been nominated to head USAID, the civilian agency for international development. The lack of leadership both in Afghanistan and Washington at these critical posts cripples our efforts. In addition, U.S. foreign aid efforts are not tied to the support and achievement of our national security objectives. Consequently, such resource requests are viewed skeptically at best and subject to deep budget cuts at worst, especially in times of economic crisis. Furthermore, the newly created State Department Office of Civilian Reconstruction is insufficiently funded and therefore unable to build a capability that can be used effectively any time soon.

While the Obama administration has increased the number of U.S. civilians deployed to provide civilian support in Afghanistan to several hundred and has committed to doubling that number next year it still will not be enough. Furthermore, participation of Afghan civilians is also lacking. Our civilian support effort must help create an Afghan economy that the people of Afghanistan participate in, benefit from and have a stake in protecting. But today, few Afghan civilians are participating in the rebuilding effort. While widespread illiteracy will remain a challenge, we need to vet, hire and train more Afghan civilians to work with us.

On the international side, NATO’s contributions are more promising—though Americans are reluctant to acknowledge them. Certainly, we want NATO nations to increase their troop commitment; Al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters pose an equal threat to the safety and security of Europe as they do to the United States. But when we seek additional military and civilian support from NATO, we must recognize that the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Estonia send more troops to Afghanistan as a percentage of their total population than the United States. This is especially poignant when examining casualties. The U.S. ranks 7th in casualties as a percent of our country’s total population. In order to increase NATO contributions we must honor and recognize their current commitment and their tragic loss. We must demonstrate that we value their loss just as we do our own if we are to expect their willingness to increase their commitment.

Without adequate civilian capacity in Afghanistan -- U.S., European, and Afghan – the burden is borne time and again by our men and women in uniform. Today, the Fourth brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division is deployed to Afghanistan to do training. Certainly, the U.S. military is competent, capable and well equipped to provide military training. However, it should not be their job to build schools, roads, political parties and medical clinics.

In the end, the media follows the debate about troop levels because it is easy to understand, explain and follow. Men and women in uniform are easy to count, but they are difficult to lose and what they need to be successful is hard to provide. Gen. McChrystal’s assessment puts it bluntly: “ISAF cannot succeed without a corresponding cadre of civilian experts to support the change in strategy and capitalize on the expansion and acceleration of counterinsurgency efforts…the level of civilian resources must be balanced with the security forces, lest the gains in security outpace civilian capacity for governance and economic improvements.”

When President Obama announces his decision about troop levels, he should also commit to bolstering our deployable civilian capabilities. He should start by scoring our foreign aid budget against our national security strategy, effectively shielding foreign assistance from the inevitable and necessary budget cuts. He should appoint a senior civilian counterpart in Afghanistan to work with Gen. McChrystal to coordinate the activities of US and international civilian support as well as the more than 800 nongovernmental organizations currently delivering services in Afghanistan. He should appoint a leader at USAID. He should fund the State Department’s Office of Civilian Reconstruction. And he should use his bully pulpit to acknowledge our allies’ enduring contributions.

The President must call on Congress and the American people to recognize and support this more challenging but necessary strategy. Though it is a fact, the President must convince the American people that our success in Afghanistan is tied directly to the security of our homeland. Our military leaders have asked for additional resources to protect us and they are entitled to our support. Until we recognize that success in Afghanistan will require more than adding soldiers, too many of our men and women in uniform will be counted as casualties.

Frances Townsend served as assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism and chaired the Homeland Security Council from May 2004 until January 2008. She previously served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism from May 2003 to May 2004. Most recently, she provided consulting services and advice to corporate entities on global strategic engagement and risk as well as crisis and contingency planning. She is a contributor for CNN and has regularly appeared on network and cable television as a counterterrorism, national and homeland security expert.