It’s taken a while but the Bush administration is slowly and belatedly starting to correct some of the deficiencies which have cost us so much in the post-9/11 wars. The best known and most successful course correction was the surge in Iraq. Now in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is finally proposing to increase the size of the Afghan National Army from fewer than 70,000 today to a projected level of 120,000 in five years. That is a badly needed expansion given that the Afghan army has to police a country larger than Iraq with a force of less than one-third the size of the Iraqi army.
Just as important, Gates is adjusting the convoluted command relationships in Afghanistan by giving one general–General Dan McNeill–authority over both NATO and U.S. forces. There are other steps that still need to be taken, including sending at least three more U.S. brigades, but that will be easier to do next year now that troop levels are falling in Iraq.
Receiving less notice (in fact no notice at all), but potentially of great long-term significance, was the overdue decision by Congress in July to give $75 million, as part of the supplemental appropriation for Afghanistan and Iraq, to the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Stabilization and Reconstruction. This office was created a few years ago to provide the civilian component in places like Afghanistan and Iraq so the armed forces won’t have to do all the heavy lifting. But it couldn’t do much because Congress wouldn’t fund it. Now the office, in cooperation with the U.S. Agency for International Development, will begin fielding a Civilian Response Corps of federal experts who can deploy abroad. A dedicated corps of 100 civilians will be available on 48 hours’ notice. A standby component of 500 federal employees who have other full-time jobs will be available within 45 days.
The State Department wants another $250 million to significantly expand the numbers of the Civilian Response Corps and to create a Civilian Reserve Corps of people who are not federal employees but, like military reservists, could be summoned from civilian life in an emergency.
Congress should fork over the money ASAP. However unpopular “nation building” is, it’s a bargain when done by civilian experts working in cooperation with indigenous allies. It is infinitely cheaper in blood and treasure than sending large numbers of American troops. And even if we do choose to send troops, the kind of expertise embodied in the Civilian Response Corps can help to avoid some of the mistakes which have cost us so much in Iraq and Afghanistan. The biggest fans of this expanding civilian capacity are in the armed forces, because they know that unless they get some help they will have to carry the entire burden in the future.