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Troops alone can't win Afghan war

By Frances Townsend, CNN Contributor
  • Adding more troops helps with security in Afghanistan, Frances Townsend says
  • She says it's vital to add civilians to improve nation's governance
  • Troops are bearing added burden due to lack of civilians, she says
  • She says success in Afghanistan is vital for U.S. national security

Editor's note: Frances Fragos Townsend, a CNN contributor on national security issues, served as President George W. Bush's chief anti-terrorism and homeland security adviser. Townsend is a partner in the law firm of Baker Botts, LLP and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program.

Washington (CNN) -- How can we best meet our national security objectives in Afghanistan?

In Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment, Afghanistan requires an "integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign." The general put the request for civilians ahead of military because it is the most difficult to provide.

It is there first because what civilian capacity the U.S. government has at hand is weak, insufficient to the task and not deployable in the way required in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan understand our need for civilian support, which explains why they attacked and killed six U.N. workers in Kabul in October. As a result, the U.N. pulled out 600 of its 1,100 staff. The U.N. withdrawal is a win for our enemies and will serve to further embolden and encourage them.

Our government lacks the civilian capacity to carry out the strategy McChrystal recommended. There is no single senior civilian coordinator in Afghanistan equivalent to the role played by McChrystal in heading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

No one was nominated to head USAID, the civilian agency for international development, until earlier this month. The lack of leadership in Afghanistan and Washington at these critical posts cripples our efforts.

Without adequate civilian capacity -- U.S., European and Afghan -- in Afghanistan, the burden is borne time and again by our men and women in uniform.

The Fourth Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division is deployed to Afghanistan to do training. Certainly, the U.S. military is competent, capable and well-equipped to provide military training. However, it should not be their job to build schools, roads, political parties and medical clinics.

In addition, U.S. foreign aid efforts are not tied to the support and achievement of our national security objectives. Consequently, such resource requests are viewed skeptically at best and subject to deep budget cuts at worst, especially in times of economic crisis. The newly created State Department Office of Civilian Reconstruction is insufficiently funded and therefore unable to build a capability that can be used effectively any time soon.

While the Obama Administration has increased the number of U.S. civilians deployed to provide civilian support in Afghanistan to several hundred and has committed to doubling that number next year, it still will not be enough. Furthermore, participation of Afghan civilians is also lacking.

Our civilian support effort must help create an Afghan economy that the people of Afghanistan participate in, benefit from and have a stake in protecting. But today, few Afghan civilians are participating in the rebuilding effort. While widespread illiteracy will remain a challenge, we need to vet, hire and train more Afghan civilians to work with us.

On the international side, NATO's contributions are more promising -- though Americans are reluctant to acknowledge them.

Certainly, we want NATO nations to increase their troop commitment; al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters pose an equal threat to the safety and security of Europe as they do to the United States.

But when we seek additional military and civilian support from NATO, we must recognize that the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Estonia send more troops to Afghanistan as a percentage of their total population than the United States. This is especially poignant when examining casualties.

The U.S. ranks seventh in casualties as a percentage of our country's total population. In order to increase NATO contributions, we must honor and recognize their current commitment and their tragic loss. We must demonstrate that we value their loss just as we do our own if we are to expect their willingness to increase their commitment.

In the end, the media follows the debate about troop levels -- rather than civilian resources -- because it is easy to understand, explain and follow. Men and women in uniform are easy to count, but they are difficult to lose and what they need to be successful is hard to provide.

McChrystal's assessment puts it bluntly: "ISAF cannot succeed without a corresponding cadre of civilian experts to support the change in strategy and capitalize on the expansion and acceleration of counterinsurgency efforts .. the level of civilian resources must be balanced with the security forces, lest the gains in security outpace civilian capacity for governance and economic improvements."

When Obama announces his decision about troop levels, he should also commit to bolstering our deployable civilian capabilities. He should start by scoring our foreign aid budget against our national security strategy, effectively shielding foreign assistance from the inevitable budget cuts.

He should appoint a senior civilian counterpart in Afghanistan to work with McChrystal to coordinate the activities of U.S. and international civilian support as well as the more than 800 nongovernmental organizations delivering services in Afghanistan. He should fund the State Department's Office of Civilian Reconstruction. And he should use his bully pulpit to acknowledge our allies' enduring contributions.

The president must call on Congress and the American people to recognize and support this more challenging but necessary strategy. The president must convince the American people that our success in Afghanistan is tied directly to the security of our homeland.

Our military leaders have asked for additional resources to protect us, and they are entitled to our support. Until we recognize that success in Afghanistan will require more than adding soldiers, too many of our men and women in uniform will be counted as casualties.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frances Townsend.