The United States' first "civilian surge" took place in August 1901, when 500 teachers disembarked from the USS Thomas, a converted cattle ship, in Manila Bay -- "the men wearing straw boaters and blazers," according to journalist and historian Stanley Karnow, "the women in long skirts and large flowery hats. Like vacationers, they carried baseball bats, tennis rackets, musical instruments, cameras and binoculars." America's colonial enterprise was new: Only a few months had passed since the Army had subdued a fierce insurgency and commenced governing the Philippines. The Thomasites, as this proto-Peace Corps came to be known, had responded to an advertisement placed in newspapers across the United States.
The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) no longer have to put ads in the papers to assemble a civilian force for the state-building effort now under way in Afghanistan, but it's remarkable how haphazard, and almost frantic, the system remains. "It's a numbers game," a USAID official told me, "a body game." Only a few of the 400-odd civilians USAID has hired so far have either language or technical skills; most are either eager youngsters or post-career officials from the military, State, or USAID. Jack Lew, the deputy secretary of state who is overseeing the process, says that "it's proved incredibly difficult to take on such an urgent challenge when you don't have a deep enough bench."
As an American, this is perplexing. Why do we not have a deep enough bench -- or any bench at all to speak of? We used to have one, even after we ceased to be a practicing colonial state. Tens of thousands of civilians -- most of them serving in the Army -- governed Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II and left behind effective democratic states. The "strategic hamlet" program in Vietnam -- the core of the effort to win "hearts and minds" -- involved more than 1,000 civilians, most from USAID. But after the Vietnam War, both the military and the political leadership recoiled from the idea of counterinsurgency and "small wars." The Powell Doctrine stipulated that the United States would fight big wars or none at all, thus effectively eclipsing the space between "war" and "peace" where in the past it had deployed a civilian force.
The Powell Doctrine became received wisdom at precisely the moment it was being superseded by events, for the end of the Cold War produced a set of "complex emergencies" in Somalia, Haiti, Kurdistan, and the Balkans that required a combination of force and large-scale civilian presence. In 1997, Bill Clinton's administration issued a presidential directive designed to systematize the civilian-military response to such emergencies. The reserve civilian force envisioned by the plan was never brought into being. And George W. Bush's administration arrived in office ideologically opposed to state-building; Bush's first national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, sneeringly declared, "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."
And then reality reared its ugly head. The fiasco in Iraq demonstrated even to the ideologues that you couldn't win the war unless you won the postwar as well; and the postwar required civilian capacity. In April 2004, the National Security Council established the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization to orchestrate postwar operations. Carlos Pascual, the first director (and now ambassador to Mexico) drew up a plan to field a rapid deployment force of civilian specialists backed by a pool of 3,000 reservists. The cost of building the quick force and deploying it for three months would be a paltry $350 million a year. The money was put in the State Department's budget, and then cut by the White House. As Pascual explained to me several years later, the Pentagon believed in the new force, but the civilian agencies, ironically, did not. The civilian force died yet another death.
The Pentagon under Robert Gates has continued to be an advocate for an "expeditionary" civilian capacity. In a 2007 speech, Gates pointed out that the 6,600 professional Foreign Service officers couldn't quite man a single aircraft carrier strike group. Gates called for "a permanent, sizeable cadre of immediately deployable experts with disparate skills" -- a remarkable proposal coming from a defense secretary. The Army already has thousands of its own such experts, but recognizes that the fundamentally political questions raised by state-building, or even disaster relief, require civilian authority and a civilian perspective.