The U.S.'s Anemic Civilian Outreach Abroad

The world, and particularly the Middle East, are changing. But Washington is not.
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U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, holds a press conference while visiting the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq May 25, 2003. (Kieran Doherty/Reuters)

After helping coordinate the American civilian aid efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya, Mark Ward arrived in Turkey last year to oversee the Obama administration's effort to provide non-lethal assistance to Syria's rebels. Unwilling to provide arms, Washington hoped to strengthen the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Led by moderates, the group was seen as a potential counterweight to jihadists.

Ward, a 57-year-old senior official in the U.S. Agency for International Development, had seen the successes and failures of similar post- September 11 programs. He was determined to get it right in Syria

From Kabul in 2001 to Tunis today, Washington has struggled to identify, work with and strengthen local moderates, and has done a poor job of implementing its policies and promises.

On one level, Ward and his colleagues have succeeded. Over the last year, more than $500 million in American assistance helped feed Syrian families, provide acute medical care and get civilians through a harrowing winter. More than 600 Syrian activists, from different religious and ethnic groups, underwent training and received generators, computers and communications equipment.

Washington's fear of any American aid inadvertently ending up in the hands of extremists, though, limited the effort. Every Syrian who received aid had to produce their Syrian national identity card, answer detailed questions about their background and have their names run through a U.S. terrorism database. And in the hope of preventing aid recipients from experiencing retaliation by the Assad regime, little of the U.S. assistance was labeled.

Inside Syria, meanwhile, the al Qaeda-affiliate al Nusra Front openly distributed vast amounts of weapons, cash and other assistance. Today, the jihadists are far more visible than the Western-backed coalition.

"Our competition in liberated areas -- mainly the al Nusra front -- don't abide by the same principals," Ward said, referring to American efforts to carefully distribute aid. "It's hard to compete with them in the short term, but longer term our assistance will endure and the Syrian people will notice."

The United States' track record in similar efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, though, is grim. From Kabul in 2001 to Tunis today, Washington has struggled to identify, work with and strengthen local moderates. In some countries, these moderates simply did not exist. In others, they had no power. In many cases, the American government - particularly its civilian agencies -- did a poor job of implementing its policies and promises.

Vast amounts of blame for the folly of the last decade lie with corrupt local leaders like Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. But there is need for a reckoning in Washington as well.

Ryan Crocker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, said the United States rushed into countries, relied primarily on military force and expected immediate change.

"Let's punch out their lights and realign their society," is how Crocker explained it. "And then when we find out the latter is more difficult than we expect, we say 'OK, let's go somewhere else.' That's what our enemies count on -- and our allies fear."

U.S. officials should "listen a bit more than we speak," Crocker said, focus on economics, and ask local moderates how best to marginalize extremists.

Crocker's view echoed that of dozens of U.S. officials -- Republicans and Democrats, civilians and soldiers -- I interviewed while covering Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq for eight years.

Over and over, people from divergent backgrounds had reached the same conclusion: The best way to counter militancy was working through local allies and creating economic growth. Deadly force was necessary at times, but the civilian effort was as important as the military.

Since 2001, though, Washington has mounted an overwhelmingly military effort. Of the roughly $1.3 trillion spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, 95 percent went to military costs. When civilian initiatives were mounted, Republican and Democratic administrations alike threw money at the problems. Sweeping change that would take years at best to achieve was expected in months.

The United States spent more than $67 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq on civilian aid programs. By almost any measure, the results were meager. Washington squandered billions on private contractors, largely failed to strengthen local moderates and struggled to use its most potent non-lethal tools: U.S. private investment, technology and education.

In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, I met well-intentioned American civilians trapped in a broken system. U.S. aid programs seemed designed more to produce metrics to appease Congress -- schools built, students enrolled, politicians "trained" -- than have a long-term impact on the ground. Speed, visibility and American political dynamics ruled. Patience, complexity and deference to locals were shunned.

In hindsight, Washington's tepid post-2001 civilian effort exposed the dangerously weak state of our own civilian institutions. In the decades since the end of the Cold War, the ability of the White House, State Department and USAID to devise and carry out sophisticated political and development efforts overseas has withered. And while the complexity of global challenges has increased, Washington's partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle have fueled demands for safe, quick results that are illusory.


In June 2009, Steven R. Koltai, a 55-year-old former Warner Brothers executive, was elated when President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning" between the United States and the Islamic world in an historic address in Cairo. What thrilled Koltai most was the president's call for a new economic approach.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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