Monday, February 16, 2009

A Diplomatic Surge? What’s the Campaign Plan?

Danger Room has a couple of Afghanistan specific news of late that relates to the State Department: U.S. Cancels Huge Kabul Embassy Expansion on February 9 and Time for a Civilian 'Surge' to Afghanistan? posted on February 11, the latter one excerpted below:

“Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a message for the State Department and other civilian agencies: It's time to step up to the plate in Afghanistan. Yesterday, the Obama administration kicked off a 60-day policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy; options may include reinforcing the Afghanistan mission by sending as many as 20,000 to 30,000 more troops. Speaking Monday to soldiers at Fort Drum, N.Y., Mullen said it was time for a "commensurate surge" of diplomats and U.S. government civilians to reinforce stability operations and reconstruction. "It is not possible to win this or succeed in Afghanistan militarily alone," Mullen said, according to a Pentagon news item. “

Back in October 2008, I anticipate that Obama’s call for Renewing American Diplomacy would be a “harder, tougher, rougher road for diplomats. I wrote:

In many ways, an Obama Presidency, which puts a premium on talk and engagement, would be a harder, rougher, tougher road for our diplomats. Talk is cheap but requires sweat, energy, imagination, creativity, and all things that do not include the firing of bullets. Things like hardship and unaccompanied assignments will most likely not get any better. Why? Simply because the state of our world has become more complex and our relationship to it, particularly in the last several years, has become more fragmented. And also because the “tough, hopeless corners” where America needs to re-engage are probably not the friendliest places for our diplomats and their families to be (Read the full blog post, Previewing Barack Obama and the Foreign Service).

I have to admit that I am a bit more optimistic that the Obama Administration will get the resources needed to fix the Foreign Service, but I also expect that it will not be shy about sending people out to re-engage in all corners of the globe. Before folks even talk about a “diplomatic surge” in Kabul or elsewhere – we need to pause a moment and get our bearings here.

There is no question that the draw-down of our military forces in Iraq is going to happen; it’s only a matter of time.

There is also no question in my mind that Iraq has sucked up State Department resources, especially in terms of personnel during the last several years resulting in the serial understaffing of many of our embassies around the globe. How much more State Department resources would it gobble-gobble when the military finally departs Iraq?

If you haven't heard, we've got a giganotosaurus of an embassy there. Our officers and support personnel also rotate every year. Unless that place is rightsized, the call up for Iraq among diplomats is not going to ease up anytime soon. Then there’ll be a call up for Kabul and surroundings. Plus Pakistan? Tehran? What about a diplomatic "surge" in Pyongyang? Quite exciting, yes?

And here is the true cost of the Iraq escapade to our lead foreign policy agency.

With many of our diplomats rotating in and out of Iraq, with miniscule increase in staffing in the last few years, and with no training float, why would anyone expect that we have enough diplomats prepared for the Afghanistan surge or any other kind of surge elsewhere?

Might someone ask FSI how many diplomats have they trained to speak Pashto and Dari?

How many have been hired to staff the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS)?

How much of the Civilian Response Corps has been constituted and ready to go?

Former Secretary Rice reportedly requested funding for 250 full time employees for an interagency Active component comprised of trained and equipped R&S first responders who can deploy in 48 hours to countries in crisis. The request would also fund training for 2,000 Standby members drawn from within the different agencies. There was even a ceremony for this back in July 2008. If somebody knows where the resulting 250 employees are, please zap me an email. Curious minds would like to know. My concern here is not that the “surge” is going to happen; it will probably happen whether the Department is ready for it or not. My concern is that Iraq is a “center for lessons learned” by and in itself, but that the hard lessons there may be quickly forgotten now that it no longer is the central front.

We stuffed a roomful of political officers at the Embassy in Baghdad, to what end?

Since their movements are hindered by security, how effectively are they able to do their jobs?

Officer and support personnel are rotated every year, how much program continuity are we talking about here?

Employees spend maybe 3-6 months to transition to a new job and spend the next 3 months to lobby for their next jobs (forward assignments have been assured at some point, don't know if it'll continue). How good is State’s knowledge management apparatus?

How many can step into their new roles in Baghdad and around Iraq, and hit the ground running without hitting a brick wall? Or does everyone start from scratch?

How many local employees have immigrated to the U.S.? How quickly are we able to recruit people to fill their place in the pipeline? How fast are we able to train them without compromising the effectiveness of the mission?

And where is the Department's Rightsizing the U.S. Government's Overseas Presence (M/R) office in all these (currently at Error 404, link may go live again sometime)?

Will the GAO get to do a look 'n see of our Baghdad Embassy operation before another "surge" happens elsewhere?

~ ~ ~

I’m actually glad they’ve canceled that embassy construction in Afghanistan. It should not be a matter of “if you build it, they will come,” but rather a pragmatic look at what State need to and can accomplish there, followed by an assessment of the corresponding workforce needed to achieve that mission. Why, of course, it’s not the other way around!

The elite Special Forces tasked with the search for UBL in Afghanistan in 2006 complained to a Bush adviser of being run by a two-headed hydra, each headed off in different directions. And they asked the Bush adviser, “What’s the campaign plan?” The adviser was forced to admit that there was no real campaign plan, just a series of tactics and approaches that evolved over time (The Inheritance, p.162).

If we had diplomats in Baghdad asking “what’s the campaign plan,” we probably won’t hear about it until Ambassador Crocker writes his memoir. Or maybe not.

I understand that a diplomatic surge maybe inevitable in Kabul to shore up Bush and Company’s other “mission accomplished.” But --

Sun Tzu in the Art of War writes: “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses the battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: How much more do no calculation at all pave the way to defeat! It is by attention to this point that I can see who is likely to win or lose.”

When that “surge” happens, our men and women in the Foreign Service and USAID will be doing another kind of battle in Afghanistan - but what’s the campaign plan and are they equip for it? Afghanistan has been described as more closely resembling a post-conflict state in Sub-Saharan Africa than it does Iraq. It has a population of 32 million compared with Iraq’s 27.5 million; it has sectarian, ethnic and tribal challenges but unlike Iraq, is more fragmented and rural. It has a land mass larger than Iraq, and a literacy rate of 28%. With the diplomatic surge in the horizon, do we even have time to pause long enough to make "many calculations?" And yet, it must be done, or it'll be Iraq all over again, and again and again...

Related Post: Previewing Barack Obama and the Foreign Service

Related Item: Robert Kaplan: Obama's Afghanistan Hurdles


jc said...

While there are a lot of diplomats in Iraq, the increase that was actually tied to the previous administration's surge policy was mainly at the PRTs.

FSO's only make up a small portion of the staffing at PRTs (in Iraq). Those numbers also include other agencies (USAID, DOJ, USDA) and uniformed military, but the largest group are people hired (either on contract or on non-career appointments) specifically for service in Iraq. So the ability to replicate that effort (should a similar surge occur in Afghanistan) is not soley dependent on the staffing of the foreign service.

USIP has prepared a number of assessments of the PRT experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq (most recently at We've actually had some discussion here about who the appropriate USG agency is for state building tasks (whether the USG ought to be involved in state building is another questions.

Undoubtedly, the military has vastly more resources (including personnel) than State, but there is the challenge of mentality. It's not the simple caricature that the military only understands force - there's a lot of folks in uniform with a good cultural/political understanding of the environment here. Rather, the challenge is the military tendency to focus on results rather than process (although anyone who has gone through the MPP process can quickly chime in that what the military describes as results are really only inputs). If the people in a community tell you that they need a road or a school, the military's natural reaction is to build the road or school rather than to remind the local citizens that Iraq is a reach country with considerable resourses and encourage them to contact their governmental representatives and engage in the political process so that in the long run there is a working feedback mechanism. The problem with the State approach is that there is a fine line between careful mentoring and blowing smoke and success (if it comes) does not follow predictable steps, but is rather a zeigeist change.

The military has taken the lead on the PRTs in Afghanistan - which might be appropriate since it might be much harder to convince Afghanistanis that theirs is a rich country whose government should respond to their needs.

How effectively can we do our jobs? Getting even the simplest things done takes much more time than it "should" - or at least than it would in some other environment:

Movement: At the PRTs we do move. It requires some planning and it's a considerable commitment for me to move, because I'm surrounded by more armed men than I care to admit, but I do move. Next is the language barrier. Ironically, those political officers in Baghdad are much more likely to speak Arabic than those of us at the PRTs dealing with Iraqis every day. So we work with interpreters. Perhaps these are local employees. Perhaps these are Arabic speaking American citizens. An American interpreter faces the same movement challenges that I do; s/he can't just hope in a car and visit someone to set up an appointment. At the base where I am now, just getting a cell phone signal to set an appointment can be a challenge, so (in frequently visited locales) sometimes we just show up and knock on the door. Certain locations (e.g. universities often) find our presence (or more precisely the presence of our military movement team, not that of the interlocutor) sufficiently disruptive as to not permit us to visit.

Continuity: at a "normal" mission, it's the local staff that provide the most continuity. We do have some local staff in parts of Iraq, not many - and most of those are relatively new to their jobs - partly because there is turnover. We're not losing people because they are afraid to work for us anymore, but many have gotten SIVs. Since it takes so long to do even the simplest things here - whatever learning curve you would expect at another post will be extended. As anywhere, a good predecessor (we generally try for a week overlap - rare at most missions) can help. It is possible to get things done, but you do need to manage your expectations.

We are playing a positive role as many of our interlocutors tell us. Whether the benefits of our efforts justify the resources dedicated - is an interesting question.

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

DS said...

Hi JC:

Thanks for the comment and the USIP link, much appreciated. I don't know if the benefits of the USG efforts justify the resources dedicated there especially when the rest of the other embassies are starved, by comparison, for resources (not to mention the rest of the USG, DOD excepted).

But I imagine that when the military leaves, those PRTs led by miloffs will either be scrapped or replaced by FSOs or USAID personnel. That would spike the need for more people there(I doubt if even AFSA has an idea about the staffing pattern there).

And if there is a diplo surge in Afghanistan, that would also means shifting resources from elsewhere to Kabul, unless DOS would do contractors and limited appointments ... outsourcing, etc. Where I am, an officer is already holding two more jobs in addition to his own. I don't know how many others are like him these days.

The question is who should be the face of the reconstruction efforts for the USG, the military who has the people and the money or the civilians who may not have enough people and never enough money. I think our military should be honed for their primary mission which is warfighting. But what is the choice given the lack of our civilian capacity?

Thanks again for contributing your thoughts on this. Take care over there JC!

DS said...


Thanks for the quote and the link!