In Remote Afghan Province, Mullen Finds Daunting Need

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaves Gov. Mohammad Ashraf Naseri last week after discussing the area's needs.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaves Gov. Mohammad Ashraf Naseri last week after discussing the area's needs. (By Mc1 Specialist Chad J. Mcneeley -- Pentagon)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

ZABOL, Afghanistan -- In this impoverished province on the Pakistani border, the U.S. military's most senior officer came face to face with the consequences of nearly eight years of American indifference and neglect in Afghanistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, sat across from Gov. Mohammad Ashraf Naseri, who nervously stroked his salt-and-pepper beard and ran through his problems. Taliban fighters regularly pass unmolested across Zabol's border with Pakistan. In recent months, they have launched a campaign to blow up the region's roads and force teachers to shut down local schools. This spring, they sliced off the ears of a defiant teacher.

"Do you have any help here, or are you all alone?" Mullen asked during a visit last week.

Naseri replied that the provincial government consisted of him and four other Afghans. There was no money coming from the central government in Kabul. The only funds in the area came from the harvesting of illegal poppies, which supported the Taliban.

Mullen had come to Afghanistan for the second time in the past month for a closer look at a war that President Obama has vowed to set on a new course. The admiral found a war effort still hampered by a shortage of civilian and military reconstruction experts, an Afghan government that barely exists beyond the capital and a U.S. military command that knows it must work hard to overcome the mistrust caused by years of aerial bombings and house-to-house raids.

In the next few months, the Obama administration plans to move more than 20,000 U.S. soldiers into southern Afghanistan in an effort to drive the Taliban from places such as the southeastern province of Zabol. To prevent the area from quickly falling back into chaos, the president's strategy places a heavy emphasis on rebuilding provincial governments and local economies shattered by more than three decades of war. "Combat operations are not the answer here," Mullen told a group of about three dozen U.S. troops after his meeting with the governor last week. "The answer is development so that people have a way to sustain themselves."

The new strategy, however, is hampered by the heavy demand in Iraq and Afghanistan for civilian and military reconstruction experts. There are only 13 U.S. civilian development experts in all of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban movement is strongest and the local economy is almost entirely dependent on opium production. The top U.S. commander in the south, Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, advised Mullen last week that a tenfold increase in the south is necessary to meet the region's needs, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told lawmakers Thursday that the State Department is struggling to find 500 civilians to work in Afghanistan. "This is obviously a challenging recruitment," she said.

In eastern Afghanistan, where the reconstruction budget increased 43 percent this year to $683 million, U.S. commanders said they have had to put long-planned reconstruction projects on hold because they don't have enough military engineers, civil affairs soldiers and contracting experts to coordinate with local companies and inspect their work. Last month, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, sent out a classified message to the Pentagon asking for big increases in the number of soldiers in these specialties deployed to Afghanistan, said a military official who had reviewed the document.

Part of the problem facing the Pentagon is that the demand inside Iraq for engineering, reconstruction and military police units -- known inside the Pentagon as enablers -- has not abated in recent months as the need has surged in Afghanistan. "There is an incredible tension," said a senior military official involved in the troop deployments. "Even as we draw down in Iraq, there is no commensurate drawdown of enablers. In fact, there is more pressure for them rather than less." Senior military officials are looking to shift money in the 2010 defense budget to fund more of these specialty units, which will take years to build. In the near term, U.S. officials are considering retraining some Air Force and Navy troops to fill some of the shortfalls.

Building new combat engineer, civil affairs and military police units, which are all essential in counterinsurgency and nation-building operations, has not been as high a priority inside the military as adding large combat brigades in recent years.

Ultimately, military commanders said the United States needs to do a better job scouring the government for civilian experts in such areas as governance and agriculture to help in Afghanistan. Many of those civilian experts are in Iraq. In the largely peaceful Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, there are more than two dozen U.S. civilian development experts -- twice the number in all of southern Afghanistan, an area military officials have identified as their top priority. "We must generate a significant amount of civilian capacity on the ground in Afghanistan immediately -- this summer," Mullen said.

In areas of eastern Afghanistan, where the United States has pushed more combat troops in recent months, Taliban fighters seem to have melted away rather than challenge American combat units. In Wardak and Logar provinces south of Kabul, the size of the U.S. force has increased to almost 3,000 troops, up from about 300 in January.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company