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U.S. agencies eye coordinated Afghan "civilian surge"

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies are boosting the number of civilian experts dispatched to Afghanistan in parallel with a large surge of American troops, officials said on Thursday.

Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy said her agency backed a “civilian surge” of at least 400 new experts, while the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will more than double to 68,000 troops by year-end.

U.S. military-civilian coordination is part of an “unprecedented interagency effort” to implement President Barack Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which pairs fighting Taliban and al Qaeda with massive development assistance, she told a U.S. Congressional panel.

“The challenges we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan are economic, diplomatic and informational as well as military, and we are taking a ‘whole of government’ approach to addressing them,” Flournoy said in a written statement to the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

That committee’s chairman, Representative Edolphus Towns, echoed critics of the nearly eight-year-old U.S. war effort in Afghanistan in calling for greater transparency and accountability and better monitoring of U.S. taxpayer funds.

The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told the committee the U.S. civilian build-up underscored a “commitment to supporting Afghan efforts to clear, hold and build their country.”

He said the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development were getting strong responses for advertisements for 125 temporary or new civilian posts to be filled in Afghanistan in coming months.

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The United States was also coordinating between the Afghan government and the international community to address Afghanistan’s request for another 650 Afghan and international civil experts, Holbrooke said in a written statement.

The U.S. envoy also vowed to support tightened national- and provincial-level auditing of aid to Afghanistan and expand the powers of a Congressionally-mandated agency to curb corruption and weigh the effectiveness of the aid programs.

Accompanying the civilian increase in Afghanistan and the tripling of U.S. aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year, every USAID contract and program in the two countries would be reviewed to ensure aid reaches the public instead of flowing to foreign contractors, said Holbrooke.

“We seek to improve vastly the coordination and integration of international assistance flowing to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” his statement to the committee said.

Faced with a resurgence of the Taliban fed by slow economic development, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has criticized international aid efforts, saying they were coordinated and funneled too much money to foreign experts.

Editing by Patricia Zengerle