Shadow Government

It's time to change the headline on Afghanistan

We had a running joke in the intelligence community that started way back in 2003 or so and went on for years that the headline for anything we wrote on Afghanistan was some variant of the same thing: "Progress Made, Challenges Remain." Last week President Obama essentially repeated the headline when he announced the results of his review of progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said in a press conference that "this continues to be a very difficult endeavor," but that "we are on track to achieve our goals" in Afghanistan. The administration's review, including the unclassified white paper, was a predictable, uncontroversial, middle-of-the-road reflection of establishment wisdom.

The headline isn't wrong, and the president's policy has much to commend it. We are making progress. He was right to deploy more troops last year (though he did not deploy enough to maximize our chance of success), and rightly has called for more time. I disagree in principle with a deadline for withdrawal, but if there has to be a deadline, 2014 is far better than July 2011. The president rightly claimed that "for the first time in years, we've put in place the strategy and the resources that our efforts in Afghanistan demand." (Though, as usual, Obama does not give his predecessor the credit he deserves for beginning the shift in strategy and resources in late 2006).

But I also agree with my colleague, Peter Fever, that the president has done a poor job selling his policy. The administration's strategic messaging on the war is a half-baked compromise between touting a success and ignoring a war their political base dislikes. As a result, the administration is content to pop up once a year, groundhog-like, utter establishment platitudes like "Progress Made, Challenges Remain" about Afghanistan, and go back into hiding until the next event forces them to acknowledge we're still there. If I were a newspaper editor, I'd send the headline back for rewrites. "Progress Made, Challenges Remain" does not capture the new dynamic that is emerging in Afghanistan and between the Afghans and the international community. And it does not serve Americans struggling to understand the purpose and direction of the war.

Here is a new headline: "Victory in Sight: Why We Need More Time, Money, and Civilians." As I argue in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, the war in Afghanistan has actually gone better than critics and the media portray it. The economy has grown beyond all expectations. The process of political reconstruction has succeeded better than in many post-conflict states over the past two decades. And the quadrupling of military forces since early 2009 will almost certainly have a demonstrable effect on the battlefield.

The missing ingredient is more civilian aid. Secretary Clinton touted that the U.S. mission in Kabul now comprises some 1,100 diplomats and civilian experts, which roughly doubles or triples the presence we had prior to 2009. Add together all the soldiers serving on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and you have several thousand more. This is still not enough. At its peak, the Allies deployed something like 63,000 people who were directly engaged with rebuilding the government and economy of West Germany after World War II. I know the cases are hardly comparable for a thousand reasons -- but most points of difference say that rebuilding Afghanistan is harder than West Germany, and so it likely needs more help, not less. All the biggest remaining challenges in Afghanistan that we have not moved to address in the last year or so -- corruption, institutional weakness, poor governance -- are civilian, not military in nature. More civilians would be the gamechanger that could change Afghanistan from a half-baked muddle-through to an outright success.

Afghanistan is winnable. We're almost there. The president's policy has many decent elements to it. But it is being sold under a stale, worn, and out-of-date headline and a poor strategic communications strategy. And it does not recognize the depth of Afghanistan's need for civilian assistance. Change that, and we will be able to look back with pride on what the United States and our allies helped achieve in Afghanistan.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

QDDR: no bull's-eye, but generally on-target

On Dec. 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out the State Department's first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) at an internal town hall meeting -- a year behind schedule. No surprise, it turns out to be more of a public relations document than a disciplined strategic review. Yet if it doesn't score a bull-eye, the QDDR at least hits an outer ring by describing an ambitious and needed reform agenda.

Quadrennial reviews -- used by the Department of Defense since 1993 and also adopted by the Intelligence Community and Department of Homeland Security -- are supposed to evaluate an institution's fitness for accomplishing expected missions and responding to crises. As guides for decision-makers, they should assess the continuing applicability of the agency's charter, the global operating environment, institutional strengths and weaknesses, and options prioritized by resources available.

I may have missed something in my speed read through the QDDR's 242 pages. But it seemed less an analytical assessment than a justification for steps the secretary had already taken. State's desire to coordinate a growing menagerie of interagency actors in its embassies got coverage, but its evolving relationship with them was brief. The operating environment lacked details on forecast challenges and regional goals. Moreover, the authors pulled punches on institutional strengths and weaknesses, shed little light on budgetary realities, and established no discernible priorities among a long list of to-do's.

Still, as a guide to intended reforms, the QDDR seems ambitious. It would expand functional areas by adding new under secretaries for economic and security matters, make international communications a core competency, and strengthen links between diplomacy and development assistance by consolidating the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) into a department that would have more of a programmatic orientation. Under a new lead-agency concept, USAID would focus on food and health issues, while State would manage democracy promotion and stability operations. It would make antiquated State and USAID personnel systems more responsive to mission needs. And, it contemplates a goal-driven planning process to improve policy planning and crisis coordination.

How radical is this? Expanding the number of functional bureaus and elevating their status could cause culture shock in a building where regional bureaus dominate. Theirs is an institution that has evolved over 200 years with diplomacy as its central competency, an etiquette rooted in discrete communication and obedience to process. Functional bureaus -- many established during the Cold War -- manage programs like counternarcotics, counterterrorism, democracy promotion, and international public relations. Their missions often involve tangible results and public discourse. State's regional fiefdoms have tolerated such undiplomatic practices by minimizing their importance -- so much so that FSO promotion boards sometimes regard a functional area assignment as a career-ender.

Consolidating USAID into the department and reorienting the whole to accommodate AID's functional nature further exacerbates that tension. USAID employees remember what happened when State swallowed the U.S. Information Agency (public diplomacy) and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) in 1999. Chopped up and parceled out to regional bureaus, public diplomacy flailed. Arms control lost clout through neglect and personnel shuffles. Already brought under nominal State management in 2006, USAID has been saddled with an additional layer of financial red tape in a Department known for taking six weeks to process a travel voucher. Employees on both sides must wonder how this merger can work.

Addressing the workforce, the QDDR takes on perhaps the biggest weakness of our foreign affairs establishment. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) may be the department's elite, but they must suffer a dysfunctional personnel system and inadequate training. Many go to post with little more than an orientation course since there is no congressionally authorized training float. Acquiring languages and skills comes second. Treated as lesser cousins, civil servants can hardly fill in, with no career track and limited opportunities to train or serve overseas. Mid-level vacancies seldom open up to outside hires, limiting the acquisition of talent. Within this milieu, USAID must rebuild its corps of career experts lost as contractors replaced them over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, employee unions may generally oppose more flexible hiring practices.

Planning is another concern. In the past, State's plans and budgets depended on field inputs based on prior years' experience. Global and regional strategies tended to be goal lists that reflected the president's policies disconnected from any resource consideration. They didn't necessarily coincide with the Pentagon's planning efforts, driven by threat assessments and outcomes. Secretary of State Colin Powell established a strategic planning and performance process intended to improve resource management. However, the pre-analysis and post-evaluations contemplated under the QDDR could lead to more realistic and forward-leaning foreign affairs strategies. Unfortunately, the document doesn't suggest how State planning would tie into other agencies' efforts.

Tardy and wanting, the State Department's first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review doesn't do some of the things one would expect of a strategic assessment. More like former Secretary Condoleezza Rice's Transformational Diplomacy effort, it specifies problems and announces decisions intended to affect a remedy. Unlike that effort, the QDDR is much larger in scope. And if carefully implemented, it could modernize the culture of the department and improve its operating practices. Secretary Clinton, QDDR Executive Director Anne-Marie Slaughter, and team members deserve credit for their audacity and clarity of vision.

How far it goes depends on how well President Obama supports it and whether Secretary Clinton gets stakeholder buy-in. Congressional support is also crucial. While the QDDR didn't mention it, State's relationship with Congress needs a makeover as well. And despite an Executive Summary disclaimer that "most of these [organizational] changes would not require new staff," developing the functional capacity that this agenda contemplates will require lots more personnel and more money. Bet on it.

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