April 1, 2007  

A working plan

Hope isn’t the only strategy for Afghanistan

As the ice melts in the Hindu Kush mountains this year, all parties know that the informal truce forced by winter is being lifted and the intense fights of 2006 will soon start again. A key Taliban commander recently bragged on the preparedness of his troops to die by announcing that the “attack is imminent.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice countered, “If there is to be a ‘spring offensive,’ it must be our offensive.”

The stakes appear to be higher in 2007 than at any time since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. The Taliban is poised to strike at what it views as the two weak points in the government of President Hamid Karzai: the commitment of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan to stick out a long, hard fight in Afghanistan’s defense and the essential grass-roots representatives of Afghan government and civil society — mayors, administrators, teachers and social organizers. The record-breaking expansion of the opium harvest bodes further ill for the hopes of the Karzai government and its international supporters. At the same time that the crop undermines Western support for a government that cannot curb the drug trade, it also creates tremendous incentives for the corruption that has left Karzai without “transmission belts” to implement national policy at the local level.

While Afghanistan faces this crisis, the concurrent transfer of command to a new commander of allied forces, Gen. Dan McNeill, and the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, introduce fresh blood into the country. As they determine how to lead their respective military and civilian components in the battles of 2007, they would be well served to look beyond their immediate predecessors to the accomplishments of an earlier generation of leadership in Kabul. Between 2003 and 2005, the U.S. ambassador and commanding general in Afghanistan established a new creature that has not been seen since — an “integrated country team” that drew upon the combined strengths of its military and civilian members, while minimizing their weaknesses. Understanding how this was accomplished may hold as much promise for responding to the challenges of a new campaign season as any other tool.


While the war for Afghanistan began with a swift succession of victories for the U.S. and its Northern Alliance partners in October-December 2001, the transition from routing the Taliban to rebuilding a nation posed an immense challenge. As the dust settled, Afghanistan’s security environment was roughly divided into three regions. In Kabul, Karzai’s interim government sought to rebuild a nation but had little sway (and no security forces) in the rest of the country. In the north and west, Karzai’s nominal Northern Alliance allies ensconced themselves as regional warlords, epitomized by Ismail Khan’s de facto sultanate in Herat. In the ethnic Pashtun heartland to the south and east, the Taliban spent 2002 licking its wounds and organizing for an insurgency.

The need to construct a government from a fractious body politic of mujahidin warlords did not bode well for prospects for the Afghan state. The December 2001 Bonn Provisional Arrangements intentionally left the powers of the government vague and limited the authority of the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Kabul and its environs. And while the interim government languished in Kabul, so did the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) could not find enough reconstruction contractors, especially as the Taliban forced most major organizations out of the south. While the U.S. military continued to hunt al-Qaida and Taliban militants, there was little coordination with the reconstruction effort.

A mid-2003 policy review attempted to halt the deterioration of Afghan security. A November emergency supplemental appropriations act doubled aid to Afghanistan to $1.6 billion in 2004 — a trifling figure compared with the current request for $11.8 billion, but a significant jump at the time. In addition to the new funding, a key change was the September 2003 appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as ambassador to Afghanistan. An Afghan immigrant who had served in a series of high-level Bush administration posts, Khalilzad arrived in Kabul with a combination of strong experience with (and in) the country as well as personal support from inside the White House and Defense Department.

Khalilzad’s first mission was to prepare the country for a transition from the early phases of reconstruction, when the U.S. mission focused on rehabilitating the government in Kabul, to readying the Karzai administration to exercise nationwide authority. The first test he faced was the approaching Constitutional Loya Jirga and presidential elections that were slated to be held by mid-2004. If the Afghan state were to have national influence, it was necessary for both to succeed and, just as important in the eyes of American policymakers, for interim leader Karzai to win the election and continue to push for the consolidation of central authority.

Khalilzad also carried a mandate to reorganize the structure of the embassy. Indeed, one of his main legacies was dispensing with the notion of the “country team” as a daily senior staff meeting and replacing it with a set of working groups that drew from nontraditional advisers and a robust partnership with the U.S. military. Khalilzad summed up his mission by saying he was in Kabul to “ensure the concerted use of all instruments of U.S. power to accelerate the defeat of the Taliban insurgency and the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

To the degree that he sought tighter relations with the military, Khalilzad found a willing partner in U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, the newly installed commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan (CFC-A), the “strategic” headquarters that was responsible for overseeing U.S. military operations in the country, specifically those conducted by its subordinate “operational” command, Combined Joint Task Force 76. Barno’s intent to work with his civilian counterparts was symbolized by his decision to place his personal office adjacent to Khalilzad’s inside the embassy. This sent a message throughout the ranks on both sides that the civil-military relationship in Afghanistan would be different.

In addition to placing himself within the embassy, Barno also played an important role in responding to shortfalls of embassy staff, caused in large part because of the difficulty of recruiting civilian personnel to serve in a war zone. In a move that greatly enhanced civil-military cooperation, Barno seconded large numbers of the CFC-A personnel to normally civilian postings inside the embassy. The large size of the CFC-A staff (Barno directly oversaw more than 200 staffers) made this policy possible, and it permitted the creation of a variety of new working groups that combined military and civilian expertise, a particularly valuable contribution on issues that required coordinating efforts between the two branches on reconstruction efforts.

Col. David Lamm, who served as Barno’s chief of staff at CFC-A, described the resulting partnership that extended from the embassy to the working level as “an integrated civilian and military team — senior leaders who made it their business to be in continual dialogue … with Bush administration policymakers, with members of the international coalition and even with nongovernmental organizations.”

Organizational innovations within the Afghan team broke through the constraints of what is known in foreign policy as the “country team,” a term that excluded the role of the operational military altogether. This breakthrough was centered on several specific bodies:

• The Coordination & Integration Chairs (CIC) and the Senior Advisory Cell (SAC) formed the top leadership hubs in Kabul, and they each began as informal personal relationships. The CIC in particular was based on the proximity of Khalilzad and Barno’s offices, which allowed them to begin and end most days with meetings and see that no major military actions were undertaken without consensus at the top. This close, visible relationship also instilled the ethos (and expectation) of interagency collaboration throughout U.S. personnel. The SAC comprised the deputy chief of mission, USAID director, CFC-A chief of staff and Afghanistan Reconstruction Group chief of staff. It coordinated strategic issues for Khalilzad and Barno — an example of a body that should exist but does not in most countries.

• The Afghanistan Reconstruction Group (ARG) was the most prominent of the new structures associated with Khalilzad. A 15-person body of private-sector experts and senior governmental officials, they were pooled to advise Khalilzad and the Afghan government on such issues as restructuring key ministries, strengthening border security, improving revenue collection, building the banking sector and developing a national communication strategy. The ARG is credited for bringing expertise that helped foster the emergence of a market economy in Afghanistan, especially by Afghan ministers who, according to scholar Robert Pareto, “appreciated the skills they brought to brainstorming on economic problems, on the reorganization of their ministries, and on the integration of agency actions and programs strategy.”

• The Interagency Planning Group (IPG) was a hybrid body that was created to be a combination of executive secretariat and program analysis and evaluation cell to the CIC. Cited by Khalilzad as one of the most successful structures within the embassy, the body developed new measures of effectiveness for evaluating reconstruction efforts. Although it forced bureaucrats to undergo third-party critiques of agency-specific programs, several country team members claimed to benefit greatly from access to a combined civil-military staff that delivered expertise to genuinely difficult problems.

• The Interagency Resources Cell (IRC) was a spinoff of the IPG that serves as a chief financial officer for the ambassador and commanding general. The IRC was created to respond to the absence of coordination between the various agency funding streams coming into the mission for reconstruction efforts. The IRC was also responsible for shepherding budget requests in Washington, and its director shuttled to Washington to maintain open lines at the Office of Management and Budget, State, and the Pentagon. The IRC was also a verifiable “follow the money” point to see what progress they made in coordinating interagency efforts — budgets are one of the few points where an effort to coordinate would be apparent at the ground level.

In sum, the combination of a strong personal relationship between the top civilian and military commanders in Afghanistan birthed a series of offices and working groups that enhanced all levels of coordination throughout the embassy.


While the new structure at the embassy provided a means to coordinate strategic planning, the country team in Afghanistan also developed the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) as a tool to implement policy in the field. Upon arriving in Afghanistan, Barno declared that PRTs would play a crucial role in the transition from focusing strictly on counterterrorism against top al-Qaida and Taliban targets to waging a counterinsurgency campaign.

The eventual PRT model was an 82-person team under the command of an Army civil-affairs lieutenant colonel. Civilian members of the team typically included a representative of the Afghan Ministry of Interior, three or four local interpreters, and one representative each from the State Department, USAID and the Department of Agriculture. The military component on a model PRT would include the commander and his staff, two four-man civil-affairs teams, a three-man military police unit, a psychological operations unit, an explosive ordnance disposal unit, intelligence specialists, medics, administrative personnel and a 40-man infantry platoon for force protection.

Three primary objectives were set for the PRT program: extend the authority of the Afghan central government, improve security and promote reconstruction. To achieve those objectives, a PRT’s primary task was most often to work with provincial governors, as described by one team commander: “Basically, [the PRT commander] sat down with the governor and said, ‘What are your priorities, governor? What is your plan, and let’s look at the resources that you have, your own resources, let’s look at the resources we have, and let’s see how we can work together to support you.’” This goal of cooperation brought the most effective instrument of American power — the military — to where it was needed most: the often floundering provincial and district governments throughout the country.

Although there was inconsistent guidance on how to integrate civilian PRT members into the teams’ efforts, their contributions were often crucial. Embassy guidance was essential for letting PRTs know whom to work with in the murky politics of Afghanistan. One significant example came with U.S. support for Karzai during a showdown with Ismail Khan before the 2004 presidential election. Although Khan had long presented a threat to central authority, the economic success of Herat as a trading hub with Iran guaranteed that he could support a large private militia. When a dispute with a deputy commander turned into a major skirmish, the U.S. Embassy seized the opportunity to help Karzai resolve the dispute and dispatch a new governor to take command in Herat.

In addition to providing security for the new governor, the PRT in Herat took the lead on a Kabul-supported program to immediately build good will and bolster the reputation of the newly installed governor. One prominent example was the decision to build a burn clinic in response to the epidemic of self-immolation that some Afghan women use to protest abusive marriages. For some time in 2004, the U.S. Embassy had been sitting on the project because it was hesitant to conduct an operation that would boost Khan’s public support. But upon Khan’s removal, the PRT in Herat moved with remarkable speed to use a combination of funds to expedite construction of the burn unit. First, Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds were used to cut a check to local contractors to draw up blueprints and lay a foundation for the building, while USAID Quick Impact Program (QIP) funds were requested through normal embassy channels to provide for the more expensive construction of the hospital. Combining these funding lines among the PRT members (the team commander and the USAID representatives, specifically), the team quickly effected an objective of the ambassador and strengthened the authority of Karzai’s handpicked man in a vital city.

If PRTs were not the perfect instrument for effecting U.S. policy, that’s because no perfect instrument exists. During its period of maturation in Afghanistan, the PRT effort has improved significantly, and the lessons to be learned there will have a tremendous impact on reconstruction efforts in war-torn countries in the future.


Through 2003, the primary source of funding for PRT activities was the Overseas Humanitarian Disaster Assistance and Civil Aid (OHDACA) account, a Defense Department funding line that is available for providing regional combatant commanders with an “unobtrusive, low-cost, but highly efficacious means” to respond to disasters and promote post-conflict reconstruction. The Golbahar Bridge in Kapisa Province, for example, was a 2003 project using $50,000 in OHDACA spending and local Afghan labor, but U.S. civil affairs officers complained that their projects throughout 2003 were underfunded.

An alternate source of funding that was introduced in late 2003 was the Commander’s Emergency Response Program account, which traced its origins to the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the U.S. government sought a mechanism for using seized Iraqi governmental assets in support of reconstruction. The CERP account was created in Iraq to allow local commanders to support small reconstruction projects, and was so popular as to be near depletion by the end of the year, prompting the Pentagon to request congressional appropriations to continue CERP spending.

The September 2003 CERP appropriations request was unique for placing the funding line in the military’s “operations and maintenance” (O&M) account rather than as a part of a reconstruction aid package and for inserting language to make the funds available for use “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” The Pentagon argued that categorizing CERP as O&M funding would allow battalion-level commanders, who deal with O&M spending regularly, to manage the paperwork process efficiently and that the “notwithstanding” exception would permit the military to avoid jumping through the bureaucratic hoops that hindered efficient use of OHDACA funds. The emergency supplemental appropriations act for 2004 thus created a $180 million CERP account that has since been increased to $500 million and has greatly enhanced the flexibility of PRT spending.

Perhaps the most valuable component of CERP spending was the opportunities it created for “phased” programs where different funding lines were tapped sequentially in support of a single project. This type of spending was due to the different timelines and spending limits of the various accounts available to PRT members in Iraq: “CERP funds, [enabled a PRT commander to] sign off on $5,000 or $10,000 on the spot, cash. ? He also had access to DoD ODACA funds, which are humanitarian funds, which meant using funds beyond these immediate impact funds [up to] $300,000. Later, we also tapped into USAID Economic Support Funds (ESF), and there was a process where our PRTs, working with USAID, would submit a list of projects to the USAID office in Kabul and get access to ESF funds to promote local development.”

The case of the Herat burn hospital is one such instance where the CERP account and a USAID account were accessed in sequence in order to carry out a common project. It is noteworthy that the combination of the two accounts met a pair of U.S. policy objectives: Work began on the blueprints and foundation without delay, and the more deliberate process for approving the larger USAID allocation permitted additional embassy oversight and minimized the risk for large-scale wastage of resources.

It is difficult to extrapolate a single “model” from the experience of the Afghan country team. When the unique circumstances in Afghanistan in 2003-2005 are accounted for, however, it is clear that the country team there accomplished several outcomes that can be identified and sought elsewhere. The unity of effort between the civilian ambassador and the senior military commander in the country was unique and vital to relative success over a period of two years. Neither has statutory authority over the other, and only personality (which is uncontrollable) or training (which is controllable) can create such a relationship. The creation of new organizations such as the ARG, IPG and IRC, meanwhile, gave the top-level cooperation institutional leverage throughout the embassy and military command.


Just as important, organizational innovations inside the embassy were reinforced by those in the field, where day-to-day leadership for stabilization and reconstruction was exercised by PRTs in a manner that integrated military and civilian efforts.

Despite these accomplishments, the country team in Afghanistan ultimately had no institutional means to compensate for the overwhelming role of personality in creating and sustaining the Khalilzad-Barno model of civil-military partnership after each left the country in 2005. Upon arriving in Kabul, CFC-A commander Karl Eikenberry removed his personal office from the embassy, and ceased to second personnel to the embassy staff. While Eikenberry sought to reassert his independence from the civilian country team, Ambassador Ronald Neumann stressed the importance of “normalizing” the embassy. Neumann welcomed the departure of CFC-A officers from his staff, and sought to restore the prerogatives of traditional chains of command within the embassy back to Foggy Bottom.

Staffs from both Eikenberry’s CFC-A and Neumann’s embassy acknowledge that the relationship between the two during the 2005-2007 resurgence of the Taliban was frosty. It is not obvious that the U.S., allied and Afghan forces would have been able to fully resist the Taliban offensives and rein in the drug trade over the last two years if the strong coordination between the military and civilian chains of command had been maintained. But it is nearly-inconceivable that a more integrated country team would not have been more effective.

As McNeil and Wood arrive in Kabul to face down a resurgent Taliban, a yet-ineffective central government and a blooming opium trade this spring, it will be well worth their effort to study the creation and success of the integrated country team in 2003-2005. Although no governmental structure is perfect, this is one of the best attempts that have been made by U.S. officialdom thus far.

Christopher Griffin is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.