With a drawdown of 33,000 U.S. surge troops now under way, and plans for all U.S. and NATO combat forces to exit Afghanistan by December 2014, the fate of the civilian mission -- the diplomats and aid workers -- in Afghanistan is uncertain.

We argued against the drawdown of surge troops on the grounds that additional military pressure would give the breathing room for the Afghan National Security Forces and civilian institutions to gain traction, and allow a political settlement with the Taliban time to play out. The decision to withdraw the military element means that policy makers in Washington must devise a new strategy for the civilian mission.

That effort has accomplished some remarkable feats in just the past two years. A surge of diplomats and aid workers in 2009 was designed to complement the troop increases. Since then, the civilians -- a team that peaked at 1,400 people this summer -- have worked alongside the troops on short-term stabilization projects and have helped the Afghan government build legitimacy, especially in provinces where allied forces had driven out the Taliban. This was the counterinsurgency strategy.

That strategy is now clearly ending. And the death in December of Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, means that the civilian mission has lost its architect and most ardent advocate, leaving it in flux.

The civilians shouldn’t be expected to secure and build in all the areas that were reclaimed during the counterinsurgency campaign. That would be an impossible mission; but the civilians will be critical to any long-term success in stabilizing the country. Their assistance can help create an Afghanistan that is politically stable enough to survive the effect of reactionary Islamist politicians, in addition to making headway in providing education and health services and facilitating economic investments.

Hurdle in Congress

The first hurdle to that success will be in Congress. We support the State Department’s request for $3.2 billion in 2012 to prevent Afghanistan from falling back into the abyss. With the military goals scaled back, however, lawmakers aren’t likely to have much enthusiasm for spending money on Afghanistan.

For the civilian mission to survive the coming budget cuts in Washington, the administration must demonstrate its enduring value as the counterinsurgency strategy ends. That’s why a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, “Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan,” urged the administration to devise a long-term civilian assistance strategy now. We agree.

A sustainable and effective civilian mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be a logistically complex undertaking. To guide the transition from military to civilian control, the U.S. should take heed of the lessons learned from missteps in Iraq.

Important decisions about the Iraq mission’s purpose and logistics were put off. As the Office of the Inspector General for the State Department put it, the civilian transition in Iraq was hampered by “the lack of timely decisions on key issues, which stems from a lack of senior level participation in the process.” In 2012, the U.S. civilian force there is expected to be about 16,000 people: 1,900 diplomats and aid workers, and 14,100 contractors. Security threats, however, have so far confined the majority of civilians to the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.

In Afghanistan, the new U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, should be given the authority and senior staff to ensure the effort gets consistent, high-level attention.

Needs Credible Plans

Also, the U.S. needs credible plans for what its civilians can accomplish outside of Kabul, without the U.S. military providing overall security. Some troops will probably remain to provide training for the Afghan forces, but bases for 26 provincial reconstruction teams, which have housed both troops and diplomats throughout the country, will be shuttering. And the situation in some areas -- especially in the south and east, where the Taliban, Haqqani Network and other extremist factions are strongest -- is too precarious to allow meaningful civilian assistance.

A civilian mission as large and immobile as the one in Iraq shouldn’t be replicated in Afghanistan. Instead of rushing to fill the troop void with more contractors, the administration should focus on developing a core group of hundreds of people with deep expertise on Afghanistan who are committed to remaining in the country longer than the standard one-year assignment.

There is now an 85 percent turnover at the embassy in Kabul each summer; this pattern depletes the U.S.’s institutional memory there. To lengthen the tours of service, civilians could be given an option of serving two continuous years in Afghanistan or two years over a four-year period, with alternating years between Afghanistan and Washington.

The civilian mission in Afghanistan may no longer be a burning issue in the U.S. But its work will help make a long-term strategic partnership between the West and Afghanistan possible.

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