Afghan government-in-a-box is tough sell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. General Stanley McChrystal boasts of a “government-in-a-box” ready to roll into the southern Afghan town of Marjah once military operations are over but many experts question whether it will work.

An Afghan soldier searches a man for weapons in Marjah in Helmand province southern Afghanistan February 19, 2010. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

The Afghan government’s past inability to deliver services and provide basic security in areas where the Taliban has been pushed out is seen as a key threat to the Obama administration’s new strategy being tested in Marjah.

“I have to give them credit for trying, but I am not holding my breath,” said Afghanistan analyst Christine Fair of the U.S. commander’s promise of a solid plan to win over local populations through improved local governance.

“If it can be rolled out (the government-in-a-box) then it can be rolled over too,’ added Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.

Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel agreed the biggest question hanging over Obama’s strategy was whether the Afghan government was capable of doing a good job, adding that McChrystal’s government-in-a-box term was little more than a catchy phrase.

“But I think the fact that we have the slogan underscores that General McChrystal and his team understand that it is not just about sweeping an area, it is all about what happens the day after,” said Riedel, who oversaw a review of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy for the Obama administration a year ago.

Even if the plan worked, Riedel said expectations should not be for a U.S.-style of government in Marjah or elsewhere.

“This is not going to look like Massachusetts in the Helmand River Valley. It will look like Afghanistan in the Helmand River valley,” he said.

Mindful of previous mistakes, U.S. officials say there has been a much bigger focus this time on offering practical help to the Afghan government as it plans to take over in areas cleared of fighters.


The new district governor of Marjah -- who had been in exile in Germany -- is waiting at a military base nearby, getting training for his new role and helping assemble what he will need from office space to stationery as well as recruiting staff.

“The idea is that as soon as conditions allow they can go in,” said State Department advisor in southern Afghanistan, Bay Fang, in a telephone interview.

But Georgetown University’s Fair criticized the decision to appoint someone to govern Marjah who had until now been in exile in Germany.

“How can they bring this guy back from Germany and expect him to be effective?,” she asked.

Fang said it was still too early to judge whether the new approach would work and even with advance planning, conditions were often different than expected on the ground.

What might look like a good building to host a health clinic, for example, could ultimately prove to be an empty shell, she said. “But we have built flexibility into our planning.”

A problem in the past has been attracting staff for poorly paid government jobs and there has been a focus on hiking civil servants’ salaries from about $80 a month to $300, she said.


The hope is that the model in Marjah will be extended to other regions but Afghanistan expert Ashley Tellis said this might be difficult because of a huge shortage of local expertise elsewhere, while the best and brightest went to Marjah to test out the Obama administration’s new model.

Also unclear, he said, was how much emphasis would be placed on law and order issues which have been sorely absent in the past.

“It is not enough to clear (an area of the Taliban), you need to keep the area sanitized and to protect the population and provide law and order,” said Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based thinktank.

In the meantime, it will be a challenge managing Afghan expectations which have been raised by all the publicity surrounding plans for the Marjah offensive and promises that things will be different this time.

“If we end up in a situation where projects are not completed, or shoddily, then this becomes a problem,” said Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The United States needs to reassure Afghans that it will not leave before there is stability -- a fear deepened by Obama’s announcement that U.S. forces plan to withdraw gradually from mid-2011.

Just as the United States is trying to build up Afghan capacity, so too is it boosting its own numbers of civilians, hoping to have nearly 1,000 in place soon.