In farms and courts, civilians train to change Afghanistan


POSTED: Monday, December 21, 2009

BUTLERVILLE, Ind.—For American civilians serving in Afghanistan, the last stop before they ship out to Kabul or Kandahar is a dilapidated, vaguely foreboding institution that once served as a farm colony for “;feeble-minded”; boys, and later as a state mental hospital.

The Army and the Indiana National Guard have turned the windswept complex, known as Muscatatuck, into a simulacrum of a war-torn Afghan city, with a courthouse, a jail and a graffiti-smeared marketplace. While the table-flat farmland around here hardly evokes the Hindu Kush, this is where the government trains Americans who are part of the “;civilian surge”; in how to deal with Afghans.

In one mock encounter, a team of Americans visited a district judge in Kunar province, played by an Afghan emigre who actually was a judge back home. The Americans listened patiently as he explained why his court had a backlog of cases, leaving the nearby jail overcrowded.

Tea was sipped and heads nodded gravely, until a man playing the local police chief (another Afghan who once held the job for real) leapt to his feet and began berating the judge, saying that his corruption would send frustrated family members to the Taliban to get swifter justice. The head of the American delegation tried to placate the police chief by promising to come up with a solution.

Nobody here calls this nation-building—the Obama administration's new strategy for Afghanistan studiously avoids that term—but it is certainly a crash course in helping to rebuild a damaged society. And it supports the most ambitious civilian campaign the United States has mounted in a foreign country in generations.

After the American trainees, in bulletproof vests, were hustled into an armored convoy by troops with automatic weapons, their instructors told them they had goofed in the role-playing encounter with the judge. “;They assumed the Afghans' problems,”; one of the instructors, James W. McKellar, said in an interview afterward. “;We told them, 'You can't do that. You're not there to solve their problems. They have got to build up their capacity themselves.”;'

But helping fix Afghanistan's degraded legal system is one of many things the United States has pledged to do as part of its strategy to root out Islamic insurgents. Stabilizing Afghanistan, officials say, will require cleaning up its government, weaning its farmers from poppy cultivation, making its people healthier, even teaching them to read.

Among the 51 recruits cycling through a recent weeklong course here were agricultural experts, small-business consultants and a bank examiner. There are nearly 1,000 American civilians in Afghanistan now; the goal is to have 1,200 to 1,300 by the middle of next year.

They will be deployed alongside 30,000 additional troops that President Barack Obama is sending to Afghanistan—a civilian vanguard that, though small, is supposed to have a disproportionate impact. Each civilian in the field will hire and train a team of 10 Afghans to help with projects ranging from upgrading irrigation systems to bolstering the responsiveness of local governments.

“;We haven't had anything like this since Vietnam,”; said Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. His deputy, Paul W. Jones, said the civilians would have to resist the impulse to do too much. “;We are not there to turn Afghanistan into something we would recognize as America,”; he said.

In training civilians this way, the State Department is pushing up against some long-held biases in the military. The Army, some officials say, takes a more traditional view of civilian-military relations, regarding civilians more as helpers and advisers than true partners. While some members of the Army Reserve take part in this training, most come from the National Guard, with a few from the Air Force and the Navy.

After a slow start, hindered in part by the long policy debate, the civilian effort is gearing up. Several hundred civilians will be deployed in the field, particularly to Afghanistan's south and east, where the military is concentrating its combat operations. More than 50 people are burrowing into Afghan ministries in Kabul as advisers.

There continue to be hiccups: The civilians, who sign on for one-year tours with the government, are not allowed to take their families, or even relocate them to cities close enough for weekend visits. That has held down the number of young recruits with families, and especially women, who are desperately needed to work with Afghan women.

At the training session in Muscatatuck, the recruits were largely male and nearing retirement. Many are alumni of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Foreign Service; a few had worked in Afghanistan before.

Marshall S. Ferrin, who led the meeting with the judge, is typical. A soft-spoken 59-year-old, he managed trade development projects for USAID and the Defense Department, and taught how to start small businesses at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“;The No. 1 issue in Afghanistan is employment,”; said Ferrin, who will be deployed to the Panjshir Valley. “;If you can create employment, the benefits will spill over into governance and the rule of law.”;

Among the enterprises he can envision are flour mills, livestock-breeding, factories that produce dried fruit, Internet cafes, even tourism businesses. Having worked in Afghanistan before, “;I have some knowledge of what I'm up against,”; he said.

Still, the reality of Afghanistan is likely to be jolting. The Indiana National Guard, which runs the center from nearby Camp Atterbury, trains the civilians to cope with social unrest. It also simulates combat situations, like an ambush in the marketplace. “;We're seven days in the life of someone in theater,”; said Brig. Gen. Omer C. Tooley of the National Guard.

In another mock encounter, Americans met a district chief, a mullah and other tribal elders to express regret for an aerial bombing of a village that accidentally killed a 19-year-old man. The Afghan leaders pounded the table angrily, asking how the Americans could claim they were there to help Afghanistan when they killed civilians.

Looking abashed, the Americans noted they had paid the boy's family $6,000 in compensation, which prompted the district chief to ask why the money had not been funneled through him.

Not all the recruits are heading to a battleground. Thomas Nollner, who works for the Treasury Department, will go to Kabul to help the Afghan central bank crack down on money laundering. He said he was driven by “;the naive desire to help the world.”;

Ferrin is leaving his wife and 16-year-old son behind in suburban Virginia. “;My son doesn't know whether to laugh or cry,”; he said. “;But I certainly have his attention.”;