Whether drowned out last week by the U.S. presidential campaign, or the crash of August waves at the beach, a rare but notable news item may have missed most readers. A suicide bomber in eastern Afghanistan killed four Americans, one of whom was a civilian aid worker, only the second such U.S. professional to lose his life in Afghanistan since 2001.
Ragaei Abdelfattah, a foreign service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development, had been working in Kunar and Nangrahar provinces, both of which border Pakistan and its insurgent-laden northwest provinces.
Abdelfattah was killed in addition to his military colleagues Army Maj. Thomas E. Kennedy, Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin J. Griffin, and Air Force Maj. Walter D. Gray, and an unnamed Afghan civilian.
The circumstances of last week’s incident were routine: a group of U.S. personnel visiting the Kunar provincial capital to discuss current activities with local officials. In such cases, coalition personnel arrive in armored vehicles, and until they enter a secure compound they are briefly in a public area, watched over by coalition security and Afghan police. Provincial directors of various ministries have offices nearby, and it is not unusual to stop by impromptu to conduct business. In this case, a passerby who appeared to be a resident was close enough to detonate his vest.
We should laud the sacrifice of all who lost their lives that day. My intent here is to remind readers of the little-publicized roles of US civilians in the evolving “stabilization” approach in today’s conflict areas, a paradigm that calls for a synergy of military and civilian expertise.
I served as the USAID representative in Kunar for 12 months during 2006-2007, which made last week’s incident personally tragic. That period in Kunar’s provincial capital, Asadabad, was relatively “permissive,” to use the coalition’s term for an area that is generally not affected by insurgent activity. Visiting the provincial capital, though precautions were always taken, came to be seen as an every-day endeavor. Recent escalation of insurgent activity in the area, including outright shelling of Afghan National Police posts in Kunar’s north, seems to be eclipsing the relative peace.
Since 2004, when coalition forces began to station Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) across Afghanistan, civilian diplomatic and development aid officers have worked alongside their military counterparts, riding in convoys to far-flung districts and sharing the travails of base life, in efforts to strengthen local government and build infrastructure.
Only one other U.S. civilian attached to a PRT in Afghanistan has lost his life in the course of his duties. Tom Stefani, who served with the US Dept of Agriculture, was killed in Khost province in October 2007 after his vehicle struck an IED.
The rarity of civilian death is attributable to several aspects of the “battle rhythm,” as the military refers to the day in / day out schedule of security, maneuvers, and meetings with local officials. Civilians do not knowingly travel to high-risk environments, such as districts overrun by insurgents. Travel takes place with security protection in armored vehicles with armed military colleagues. They are also usually afforded better privileges at provincial and regional bases, such as individual quarters.
Their workday mirrors that of military officers. Charged with engaging provincial and district officials, and supporting projects that improve education, health, and agricultural output for Afghans, civilians plan and coordinate with military and Afghan counterparts, and report to higher headquarters in Kabul. The State Department, USAID and USDA usually staff one representative per PRT, as well as on non-US PRTs in the north and west of the country, where NATO partners may also staff their own civilians.
PRTs were also a feature of stabilization efforts in Iraq. In an expansion of this model, USAID and the State Department have for the past several years been fostering the Civilian Response Corps for various conflict areas around the globe, such as Georgia, Nigeria, and Kyrgyzstan.
Embedding civilian advisors with the military has its roots in the Vietnam-era Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) program, which brought USAID, Department of Defense and Department of State together to work on infrastructure, economic and agricultural development, and police training, one of the earliest recognitions that conflict environments called for civilian input. Some argue that civil-military relations were pioneered during the Marshall Plan in the wake of World War II, when municipal managers were called to Europe to restore city governance.
Detractors of placing civilians on the battlefield argue that the military mission can become compromised and that civilians have little impact in highly kinetic environments. Responding to similar criticism, Ryan Crocker, who recently left his position as US Ambassador to Afghanistan, in July reminded Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer of the substantial civilian contribution.
“When I first got here in January 2002,” Crocker said, “9 percent of Afghans had access to health care. There were 20,000 mobile phones. Now there are 16 million mobile subscribers and more than 60 percent of Afghans live within an hour’s walk of health care. The number of students is up to 8 million in a decade. We increased life expectancy by a decade in the last nine years. This is not nothing.”
Afghan ministries however often note the difficulties of its own officials to coordinate and prioritize assistance with ISAF (International Security Assistance Force, the umbrella for NATO troops in Afghanistan) and the myriad multilaterals and NGOs doing work across its 34 provinces. Aid and development coordination could be – and has been — the topic of separate, lengthy study, examining the roles and incentives for civilian, military, and even domestic political actors.
The Center for a New American Security, based in Washington D.C., in January 2012 published the study “America’s Civilian Operations Abroad,” examining past and future requirements for civilian efforts. The authors note that in the current economic climate, which eschews spending, “three broad trends are likely to affect future requirements for civilian agencies: reduced funding for civilian agencies, continued requirements for most contingency operations, and increased requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Taken together, these trends suggest a growing mismatch between future resources and requirements.” The coming NATO drawdown and security transition to Afghan forces will additionally complicate civilian efforts, since there will be dwindling physical protection.
Regardless of future trends, the civilian contribution in war theaters has fostered new approaches to addressing conflict. The US State Department, under its now-evolved Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), has since 2006 been training its own foreign service officers in addition to professionals from USAID, USDA and DEA to staff foreign assistance missions. Ragaei Abdelfattah, and the hundreds of other civilians who have committed themselves to bettering the lives of people in conflict environments, can be certain their mission will continue.