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More Civilians Heading to Afghanistan, But to Support Which Ministries?

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy wasn’t the only Obama administration official who addressed the American Enterprise Institute this morning. She was joined by Paul Jones, Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke’s deputy at the State Department, and Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the head of the Joint Staff’s Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell. They provided new details about the political, diplomatic, and economic development aspects of the new Afghanistan strategy that the new extended troop surge has largely obscured.

Jones’ big news: as arduous as it’s been for the U.S. government’s civilian agencies to implement the so-called “civilian surge,” that surge is getting surgier. In the coming weeks, the Obama administration will ask Congress to provide additional funding for more civilian advisers and experts to deploy to Afghanistan, “beyond” the roughly 1,000 civilians expected to be in-country by next month. New consulates will open around the country, Jones said, including in Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. Since the majority of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will focus on the south and the east, those new consulates suggest additional diplomatic activity in the north and the west will be the lion’s share of U.S. efforts at maintaining stability (in the west) or rolling back creeping insurgent advances with non-U.S.-NATO forces (in the north).

But the overall effort is one that focuses on deliverable governance and economic development below the national level, particularly in the southern and eastern insurgent-plagued Pashtun areas. “That does not mean we ignore Kabul,” Jones emphasized. Instead, the United States will focus on “supporting those ministries” that will provide “direct impact” to Afghan civilians and “broadening their support and engagement at the provincial and district levels.” In other words, the Obama administration’s effort is geared toward making those ministries a relevant and positive force in Afghan daily life. The Karzai government’s contribution to this, Jones said, will be “fleshed out in the coming weeks” at international conferences in London and Kabul.

Nicholson, the Joint Staff’s top man focusing on Afghanistan and a veteran of the war himself, elaborated on which ministries that effort will target: the security ministries of Defense and Interior, as well as the Agriculture ministry and the ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. And it means supporting the National Solidarity Program, an Afghan-led development effort that funds and support projects designed at the local level. The goal, Nicholson said, was to broaden and deepen the ministerial presence out in the provinces and districts, as right now that presence can be as thin as “one individual, who may or may not be able to connect effectively with the people.” One metric Nicholson suggested the administration will be looking at to measure success will be the expansion of wheat production in areas that right now are growing poppy, which helps fund the insurgency.

Much as this might seem like American beneficence, Jones emphasized that it was necessary to “reverse the momentum” of the insurgency in a sustainable way. As the administration has described since March, one of its assumptions is that non-ideological Taliban fighters motivated by local grievances or lack of economic opportunity can be essentially taken off the battlefield by these sorts of development efforts. That’s one of the reasons why Flournoy said she thinks that al-Qaeda’s allies in Afghanistan could “lose foot soldiers in droves” as the result of the revised administration strategy.

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