Cover story As politicians and military officers alike continue to call for a 'civilian surge' in Afghanistan, Aram Roston reports from Wardak province on the improvised attempts at order that are filling the gap.
As politicians and military officers alike continue to call for a 'civilian surge' in Afghanistan, Aram Roston reports from Wardak province on the improvised attempts at order that are filling the gap. In October, as American forces launched a new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, I scrambled behind a 37-year old civilian "political adviser" named Matthew Sherman up into the backside of a Chinook helicopter. Before we took off from Forward Operating Base Shank, in troubled Logar province, Sherman leaned back against the webbing and buckled himself in, carefully adjusting his earplugs to protect against the deafening roar of the twin turbo engines. Sherman wore a blue Oxford shirt and a set of chinos: the banal modern day casualwear of a graduate student at Georgetown University, or a Senate aide. But he also wore hiking boots, a Kevlar helmet and tan body armour. Around us in the helicopter were officers and troops in combat uniforms, M-4 carbines slung across their chests. "I stand out like a sore thumb," Sherman yelled above the noise. As a State Department diplomat, embedded with the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army, he is the odd man out here. An unarmed civilian in a sea of Army green and desert tan, Sherman represents the tip of what American policymakers have called a "civilian surge" - an influx of diplomats and experts in fields like agriculture, development, law and finance, intended to supplement the growing American military presence and help implement a strategy for Afghanistan that depends on improving governance and providing stability to the country's citizens. When Barack Obama announced his plans to send 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan last week to join the 60,000 already there, he referred to this civilian push as one of three critical components in the American strategy for Afghanistan, calling for "a civilian surge that reinforces positive action". He made similar statements in March, during a speech on the administration's new "Af-Pak" strategy, and before that on the campaign trail, calling for "a civilian national security force" in July 2008. The traumas of irregular warfare - and the failures of nation-building - in Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced American policymakers that men with guns may not be the best instrument to achieve their goals. The US wants political solutions that the military alone cannot offer. But the task is easier stated then achieved, and despite endless calls for a civilian surge, new personnel are barely trickling into the country. The assignment that day was a fairly simple one: we flew to the north-west over irrigated green fields and bone-dry mountain ranges, to a base called FOB Airborne. There, troops gathered for a battlefield memorial; a young soldier had been killed a few days earlier. Dozens of soldiers sat in rows under some camouflage netting. The sun was high but the weather was cool. Matt Sherman stood apart from them, alone off to the side, his head down and his hands in front of him, through the service. A pair of boots, a rifle, barrel facing down, and a helmet positioned on the stock. That was the shrine. A framed photograph of the deceased, Brandon Owens - a 21-year-old African-American private - sat at the base of the rifle. The newspapers would say he and another soldier died "when enemy forces attacked their unit using small arms fire". The truth, as became clear at the memorial, was more complicated: the soldiers were killed by an Afghan police officer they were training, who opened fire on the Americans as they rested, and then escaped. I joined Sherman when the service ended and we walked off slowly past soldiers who were in tears. The music played on, a song called A Soldier's Heart. "This is the hard part of this talk of reintegration and reconciliation," Sherman said, referring to ongoing efforts, now picking up steam, to begin talking to the Taliban. "These things are always heartbreaking. I try to go to all of them, though." Then he strapped on his body armour to prepare for a walk, with the brigade colonel, through the market of Maydan Shar - the capital of Wardak province. The military calls these walk-and-talks with the locals "battlefield circulations", since the whole country is their battlefield.
In 2009, the centre of the diplomatic effort is still in the capital, Kabul, in a secured and impregnable embassy compound along the big avenue now called 'Massoud Road", after the Northern Alliance leader who was killed in 2001. Old Afghan hands are fond of insisting that the capital doesn't represent the "real" Afghanistan, and the city feels like an isolated oasis in a sea of chaos. Nor does its influence extend far beyond its own boundaries: government actions and proclamations are heard as whispers in the rest of the country, most of which regards the central government as an irrelevant and powerless kleptocracy. While Iraq under Saddam Hussein could boast functioning ministries staffed with officious bureaucrats and civil servants across the country, Afghanistan had no such governing infrastructure immediately prior to the American invasion. Ministries exist in name only; they have little authority or reach beyond the capital. Even the country's physical infrastructure has badly deteriorated: many towns and villages are all but inaccessible; streets remain unpaved. With a few exceptions, most people outside cities lack access to electricity, medical care or sanitation. Corruption, violence, terror and incompetence rule the countryside. Walled up inside the Kabul embassy, civilian officials carry on their work at a great remove from the country whose administration they are ostensibly assisting. "You can do the same kind of paperwork in Washington as you can behind the walls here," Doug Wankel tells me. He's a former US Drug Enforcement Agency official who first saw Afghanistan before the Soviets arrived in 1979, and then returned after the Taliban fell. He's in Afghanistan because he loves it, he says, and he now works as a counternarcotics adviser for a consulting company with a government contract. Inside the secured embassy, he pointed out, "you don't know Afghanistan, you don't learn Afghanistan. And Afghans don't know you. So I'm not sure what gets accomplished the way we do things."
The way that the US did things, at least until recently, meant that only a handful of diplomats and civilian experts were stationed outside of Kabul. In October, only about 160 "civilian" employees of the US government were in the rest of Afghanistan - something like two-tenths of one per cent of the US soldiers now stationed there. By the end of this year, as civilians "surge" in, that figure should rise to 350 - or about 10 for each province in Afghanistan. The total number of US civilians working in the country, including those in Kabul, will still be less than a thousand. That shortage is why the concept of a "civilian surge" has so much resonance. Sherman arrived in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2009 as a political adviser to Task Force Spartan - whose soldiers were among the first troops to deploy to Afghanistan at the beginning of Obama's presidency. As they set up their bases and combat outposts, he stayed and watched and worked. Task Force Spartan, which is built around the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, is made up of about 3,000 soldiers and is in charge of operations in two contentious provinces, Wardak and Logar - an area of 5500 square miles, roughly the size of the country of Montenegro. At first Sherman was the sole civilian, and now he's one of about 15. Sherman's call sign among the soldiers is "Spartan 10", and his office is a few doors down from the that of the commanding officer, "Spartan 6". Sherman works out of a 5-by-5 metre room of unpainted plywood off one corridor of the Tactical Operations Centre. On one wall is a chart with the names and photos of 60 local politicians in Logar Province. Sherman had his feet propped up on his desk as we talked, and he pointed over to a detailed map of the two provinces hanging on another wall. "That is the reason why this brigade was sent here; that roadway," he said, "is a strategic roadway." A slanted line across the midsection of the map indicated Highway 1, the road from Kabul to Kandahar. Wardak was considered to be under Taliban control until last year. Most of it still is. Violence increased dramatically during 2008, with a slew of kidnappings, beheadings and hijackings; in a single ambush on Highway 1, Taliban fighters burnt 50 lorries bound for a US base and then slaughtered their drivers. And Logar Province, which touches Pakistan, is a Taliban stronghold, where the New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped. "These high profile events," Sherman continued, "gave the impression of lawlessness." The international forces had basically ceded Logar and Wardak, stationing barely a token force here. Like so much of Afghanistan, it was an uncharted place on the Americans' map. For Sherman and the 3rd Brigade, the first task was to figure out who was really in charge. The area was "a blank slate", as Sherman saw it, that required a new policy. "You're having first-time engagements with governors and the population as a whole," he said. "I don't know any other places where you have that." Sherman grew up in a tiny town in New Jersey, the son of a nurse and a pharmacist. He attended the University of North Carolina, where he obtained a law degree, before studying international relations at Cambridge. He worked for the State Department in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia, and went to Iraq after the American invasion to work as an adviser to the Ministry of Interior. After his first rotation he went back as an adviser to General David Petraeus on the Baghdad security plan. He is a restless sort: his hobby is climbing mountains. When he finally left Baghdad in 2008, he immediately set off on an expedition to climb Argentina's highest peak, Anoncogua. Most days Sherman wakes up in a plywood hut, heads out to the Tactical Operations Centre for a 7.30am briefing, where he is the token civilian, and then rushes off to meetings with various local Afghans, on or off the base. Often he heads out with the military commander, Colonel David Haight. Haight is an energetic and experienced infantry officer. He's got blond hair, blue eyes and a boyish but thoughtful way about him. "I'm probably the most kinetic infantry officer this army has produced," he says; "kinetic" is the term de jour for aggressive combat operations. But kinetic is not working here, and the colonel insists that what he wants most is more civilians on his team. "I would love for the civilians every morning to write my to do list," he said. "Theoretically it would be great if they'd get up every morning and tell us what needs to get done and I'd just secure the effort." I went out with Sherman and Haight for one of these "battlefield circulations". The soldiers were in full Kevlar and body armour as we walked off the base, which was built right next a town to increase its presence and visibility. We were accompanied by a lieutenant colonel, the brigade sergeant major, and a squad of soldiers for protection. In town, Haight and Sherman removed their helmets, and walked side by side; the colonel joked around with whoever he could as we passed a few shops. "Ask him if he voted," he would tell his translator. The guy didn't want to answer. "Did he vote?" insisted the colonel. Sherman smiled and squatted near a crowd that had gathered to talk. After arriving in Afghanistan, he told me later, the first thing he learnt was that economic issues are central to the insurgency, at least in Maydan Shar. People fight not just for ideological reasons, but in part because they are paid to do so. As Gen Stanley McChrystal explained in congressional testimony this week, the Taliban pays its soldiers more than the Afghan government does. Sherman and Haight talked to the crowd like politicians pressing the flesh during a campaign stop. The people had the same gripes as elsewhere. They don't like the night operations, they said. There are too few jobs. I spoke to a pharmacist who was decidedly unimpressed by the recent troop increases. "You can send every American there is to Afghanistan," he said, "and that won't stop the fighting. The only way to stop the fighting is negotiations with the enemy." Sherman is open to the prospect of negotiations, but remains wary. Shortly after the brigade arrived last winter, they got a lesson in the complexities of local diplomacy. It started with a curious message from an Afghan general. There were some people he and Haight should meet, the general said; ex-Taliban, perhaps even still Taliban. The meeting took place at the general's office, on the outskirts of Kabul. A group of more than 20 bearded and sombre men, in traditional shalwar kameez and turbans, filed in. "We realised," Sherman explained, "that they were the Taliban 'shadow government - they would introduce each other by their titles, you know, 'This is councilman so and so.'" It was a strange meal, of course, attended by the American military and the men they were supposed to be fighting. Sherman sat at one end of the long table, near mounds of kebab, cans of Shasta soda, and plates of flat bread. His Taliban dinner companions were grizzled veterans, many bearing visible war wounds - one man was missing a leg, another an arm. "What they wanted to do was engage with us," Sherman said. "They knew the dynamics had changed in Wardak, and they wanted to see who it was who had stepped into the zone they considered their own." But the meeting was not a success - at least not for the Americans. Soon afterwards, fighters launched a fierce attack against an American patrol; the man directing Taliban operations during the assault had been one of Sherman and Haight's dining companions.
The failure to plan for what the military now calls "stability operations" in both Afghanistan and Iraq forced commanders and soldiers alike to assume new and unfamiliar roles, often with limited success. Offers were pressed into service as impromptu civics teachers, aid workers and political consultants. Given the shortage of diplomats and civilian experts in Afghanistan, the real political work, just like the fighting, will continue to be done by soldiers. Kevin Palko, a 26-year-old captain, runs the discretionary reconstruction fund for Task Force Spartan, and is the main liaison to the frail, whisper-light provincial government in Logar. One day I accompanied Palko to a meeting with the deputy governor. As we rattled out past the blast walls of the base in a mine-resistant armoured vehicle, Palko described the theories he has developed on his own to try to push the Afghans to look to Kabul rather than to the US Army. Among his ideas is to reward the locals with aid money only if they go first through Afghan government channels in Kabul, corrupt as those may be. That way, he figures, he is building channels between the provincial authorities and the capital. "I have a political strategy," he told me, as we walked into a government building, "but it's not in line with the expertise. I need someone who has expertise," he said. "It would be great to have a State Department guy leading the political effort. I need an agricultural expert. I need a justice expert." In the second-floor office of the deputy governor, a boy brought tea for everyone. What quickly emerged in the conversations was a fundamental conflict between local needs and American goals: the Afghans wanted funds, but the Americans wanted the provincial authorities to appeal to the central government in Kabul. The deputy governor complained that he couldn't get funds from Kabul to pay the provincial government's electricity bill: the central government was supposed to pay it, since the locals have no budget of their own. But the money had not materialised.
The assembled greybeards looked expectantly at the young captain, with his cup of tea and his military-issue notebook, but his response was not what they were looking for. "You need to take it to the central government and tell them about this issue," he lectured them. "Because if we give you money and we give you the fuel for the government and the police and everything, who is going to do it next month? It's not a sustainable solution. It has to be a sustainable solution!" The interpreter translated all this, and the provincial leaders remained impassive. They knew, of course, that the inept and unresponsive central government would continue to give them nothing. Palko says that he's not only frustrated by his own lack of expertise in governance and rebuilding, but by the overall US effort on these fronts, which he says has been devoted to building things that don't work. "What have we been doing the last seven or eight years?" he asks. "Quick, quick, quick, quick, quick - and it hasn't changed any of the dynamics! Just doing projects doesn't change the security conditions, and it doesn't empower the government." Ronald Neumann, who served as US Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, told me that the civilian surge is being oversold - but that it's still necessary. The military, he said, even with the best training, can only provide a kind of patchwork reconstruction: "They can build a school but if they don't connect it to the national education system they are not going to have teachers, or a maintenance budget, or books. You are just going to have a building." The bigger issue, he says, is that for the military "everything is a training and equipping problem", where the real crux of development requires "social transformation. "With all due respect to my military colleagues," Neumann told me, "they have never worked on problems of social transformation. It's not their business. They don't know much about it." His point is that no matter how money one pours into infrastructure, it only matters if people are taught to maintain it. "You can't just train people to do something," he says, "you have to train them to think a certain way. It doesn't matter what stuff you build. If you haven't accomplished a social transformation to use it properly you have actually accomplished very little." This, in the end, is what the civilian surge is supposed to accomplish: it's not just the import of technocrats who can lecture Afghans to rotate crops or dig wells. The real goal, which may be unattainable, is to put a new face on the occupation, and to treat the US presence in Afghanistan as something more than just an endless, unwinnable war.
What can a civilian bring to the table that a military officer can't? It's not merely expertise, Neumann says. "In Iraq I watched a lot of technical experts, technocrats if you will, who had no idea how to deal with Iraqis. They had no more impact then pouring water on the sand," he said. The challenge, according to Neumann, is to understand the culture in which you're trying to work. Haight, the colonel, credits Sherman with an effort to refine the army's understanding of its foe in Afghanistan. "We have to improve how we look at the enemy," Sherman adds. "People say 'Taliban this. Taliban that. Taliban's taking over.' Whatever. By constantly doing that we give the perception of this giant bogeyman taking over the country, when in fact, that's not the case in my view." The real reason policymakers can't stop talking about the civilian surge, then, is not just because the American effort in Afghanistan lacks for technical and diplomatic capability. It is, perhaps, because a civilian occupation presents another way out of a messy and seemingly unending war, one that even generals now insist cannot be won through fighting alone. During my time with Sherman, I thought often of stories I had read about the "political officers" who served the British Empire during its occupation of Afghanistan, storied men of derring-do who negotiated with local leaders, suborned tribal authority, or administered foreign possessions on behalf of the crown. I told Sherman the story of Alexander Burnes, who rode into Kabul on horseback in 1839 to claim the city for the British and reinstall a deposed king on the throne. Burnes was a talented linguist who first gained his daredevil reputation by trekking up into the Punjab dressed in the garb of a local pauper in 1831. Later, all of England was entranced by his book, Cabool, Being a Personal Narrative of a Journey to and Residence in that City. It was published in 1841, when he was the deputy political resident there. He lived, confident in his own abilities, well away from the British encampment - until his house was surrounded and set afire by an angry mob, who murdered him on the spot. "I just hope that doesn't happen to me," Sherman said, laughing, after I told him the story. The British used their "politicals" to perform tasks very different from those that confront Sherman and his colleagues. Sometimes they were mere functionaries and sometimes the not-so-secret powers propping up puppet rulers. But in Afghanistan and its environs, they built up their own legends, bribing, cajoling and forming alliances with tribal leaders. Robert Sandeman, who served as the British political agent in Baluchistan in the 1870s and succeeded in bringing its territory under the control of the Empire, is credited today with formulating some of the ideas of modern counterinsurgency. "To be successful on the frontier," he wrote, "one has to deal with the hearts and minds of the people, and not only with their fears."
Sandeman's observation remains at the core of what the army now calls "population-centric" tactics, which have rapidly become the predominant doctrine for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the role of the "political officer" has received renewed attention from diplomats and academics alike. One recent paper, by the historian Christian Tripodi, sought lessons for today's conflicts in the feats of persuasion performed by British politicals at 19th-century tribal shuras, which may not have looked all that different from the meetings that Matt Sherman still attends. But even in the era of Empire, Tripodi found the results were disappointingly familiar: in the end, he wrote, missions were undermined by "a lack of firm political guidance, financial undersourcing and an active rivalry between civil servants and the military." By the end of December, Haight, Sherman and Palko will all be out of Afghanistan: just when people stay long enough to get to know the country, it seems, their tours come to an end. Despite their intimate experience in the country, far from the secured zones of Kabul, both Sherman and Haight say they still don't quite know what victory in Afghanistan will look like. "Sometimes you have both sides thinking they've won," Haight mused. "If we can say 'Well, we've got it good enough that people won't be able to fly planes into our buildings anymore,' then we may claim that as a victory." For the Afghans, he adds, "the fact that we've left, and the fact that they still live in their cesspool, that's good enough for them." Sherman is far more diplomatic. "It is not simple," he said, laughing. "You can quote me on that: It is not simple."
Aram Roston is the author of The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi.