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US lacks civilians for Afghan `civilian surge'

world Updated: Apr 23, 2009 20:08 IST

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The Obama administration is having trouble finding the hundreds of civilians it wants to bolster its troop buildup in Afghanistan, so military reservists might be asked to do many of the jobs.

In announcing the new strategy for the war last month, the administration said it would send several hundred civilians _ agronomists, economists, legal experts to work on reconstruction and development issues as part of the military's counterinsurgency campaign.

Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said on Thursday that the military is trying to find ways to fill the gap. That would likely be with reservists, who often have the necessary skills because of the experience they have in their civilian lives, other officials said.

"It's just a realization that they are not going to be able to provide the `civilian surge' in the near future, and the need is now," Morrell said. "We're looking at ways to step into the breach and figure out how we can get additional personnel there to help out on the civilian side," Morrell said.

The phenomenon of looking to the military is far from new and was a sore point in Iraq as well after the Pentagon was asked to do tasks the State Department lacked staff to do. The military, among government departments, has long had more money to train and hire people and a greater ability to order its employees to war zones and other hardship posts.

The Obama administration over the coming months is sending about 17,000 additional combat troops and 4,000 more trainers to mentor Afghan security forces. The buildup has been long delayed by the war in Iraq as the Afghan campaign became increasingly violent in recent years.

Officials have not released the number of civilians wanted to bolster the new effort and have said there is no firm number yet. Two officials said privately that the number of 500 to 600 was being considered at one point as the new war strategy was being developed in recent months.

Besides the 1.4 million-strong U.S. active duty armed forces, some 850,000 "citizen soldier" reservists are available across the services. It was unclear whether reservists with needed skills would be activated to fill the Afghanistan positions. It is also possible that they could instead be hired as private contractors rather than going in uniform, one official said on Thursday on condition of anonymity because plans are sketchy.

"We are going to be looking beyond the government resources; we're going to be looking to our reserve components, where we can tap individuals based on their civilian skill set," Michele Flournoy, undersecretary for defense policy, said in a speech on Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Flournoy said the United States did not build a cadre of civilian experts for such missions when the need first came to light years ago in places like Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans. "We're going to be playing catch-up.We're going to be looking to a whole host of stopgap measures until we can generate that additional capacity," he said.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen early this month appealed to U.S. allies to contribute civilians to work with Afghan ministries and on the nation's economy.