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Archive for Friday, April 24, 2009

Gates: More civilians needed in Afghanistan

April 24, 2009

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— Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday told Marines being deployed to Afghanistan that a U.S. victory there would look similar to progress in Iraq, but he cautioned that more civilians with skills beyond the battlefield will be needed.

The Obama administration has called up 17,000 more troops to supplement the 38,000 American troops already fighting a resurgence of the Taliban. It said last month it would send several hundred citizens, from agronomists to economists, to work on reconstruction and development issues as part of the military’s counterinsurgency campaign.

That has proven to be difficult, and the Pentagon said Thursday that reservists, who often have the skills needed in such a buildup, might be asked to fill the gap.

“I am concerned that we will not get the civilian surge into Afghanistan as quickly as we are getting troops into Afghanistan,” Gates said during a daytrip to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. He said he is asking for volunteers who have specific skills “who might serve as a bridge, getting them out of there quickly, and then bringing them back when their civilian replacements are hired.”

The Pentagon has been asked to see whether it can find 200 to 300 reservists. Officials are canvassing the force to find the needed experts — educators, engineers, lawyers and others, said Bryan Whitman, a Defense Department spokesman.

Lt. Gen. Dennis McCarthy, head of the Reserve Officers Association, which has 68,000 members, worries that such a plan would harm unit readiness and integrity and questions how volunteering for such jobs would affect reservists’ regular service time.

The phenomenon of looking to the military is far from new and was a sore point in Iraq after the Pentagon was asked to do tasks the State Department lacked staff to carry out. The military, among government departments, has long had more money to train and hire people and a greater ability to order its employees to war zones and other hardship posts.

In an attempt to address this, the State Department in 2006 created a Civilian Response Corps with the aim of building a cadre of hundreds of civilian government workers with expertise in different areas of post-conflict reconstruction.

Funding for the project, led by veteran diplomat John Herbst, was slow to come from Congress. It has only 35 of its planned 250 active members from various government departments.

With $75 million more just allocated to the corps, officials said Thursday they are now ramping up staffing and hope to have hired, trained and equipped at least 100 personnel by the end of the year.

In addition to the active component, the corps has a 300-strong standby unit for short-term emergency deployments that officials want to boost to 500 by the end of the year with an eventual goal of 2,000.

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