Forget the best and brightest. Why did America send its C team to Afghanistan? An exclusive excerpt from the new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.

When Richard Holbrooke became the Obama administration's Afghanistan point man in January 2009, Summer Coish was keen to join his civilian operation. She had the requisite credentials: a master's in public health and experience working on foreign development projects. For the previous five years, she had been splitting her time between New York and Kazakhstan, where she and a friend had started a glossy biannual magazine about Central Asia. Although she dug a little deeper into her savings to print each issue of Steppe, the publishing venture had swelled the list of contacts on her mobile phone. She knew more Afghan entrepreneurs -- from the founder of the country's most successful television station to the owner of the largest bottled-drinks company -- than anyone else seeking a job with USAID.

Coish, a tall blonde with a fondness for dangle earrings acquired in far-off bazaars, was just the sort of person Holbrooke desired for his Washington team. But she wanted to live in Afghanistan, so he introduced her to Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. He brought her to the swearing-in ceremony for the new USAID director in Kabul, who happened to be an old friend of Coish's from Kazakhstan. They talked about possible assignments for her and settled on a position in Kabul coordinating donations from other nations. It seemed a good fit with Holbrooke's goal of increasing international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Coish arrived in Kabul 14 months later. (It took that long for the sclerotic State Department bureaucracy to process her application and provide her a security clearance -- a process that required her to list all of her travel outside the United States and every "foreign contact" she had had in the previous eight years.) When she finally got there, she expected to work with a team of fellow Americans committed to helping rebuild Afghanistan. Long gone were the days when the U.S. government had assembled postwar reconstruction teams based on political fidelity, questioning prospective hires about their views on Roe v. Wade and capital punishment, as the Bush administration had during the first year in Iraq. Now, Holbrooke was recruiting the best and brightest in Washington. Coish believed the same standards would apply in Kabul.

Within a day, she saw she'd been dreaming. She divided most of the people she met in the highly fortified embassy and USAID compound into three camps: those who had come to Afghanistan because they wanted to make a lot of money -- with hazard pay and bonuses, some staffers earned as much as $300,000 a year; those who were getting their tickets punched for a promotion or a posting to a comfortable embassy in Western Europe; and those who were seeking to escape a divorce, a foreclosed home, or some other personal calamity. "It's rare that you ever hear someone say they're here because they want to help the Afghans," she told me after she had been there for a few months.

Everyone seemed bent on departure. One itching-to-go staffer designed an Excel spreadsheet he called the "Circle of Freedom." You entered the date you arrived and the date you were scheduled to leave, and it told you, down to the second, how much time you had left in Kabul. A USAID employee took to listing his time to freedom in the signature line of his email messages.

Set on a closed street off a traffic circle named for the assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the U.S. diplomatic compound in Kabul was ringed by tall walls topped with razor wire. Rifle-toting Nepalese guards -- Ghurkas for hire -- patrolled the perimeter and manned three separate checkpoints everyone had to pass through before entering the embassy grounds. More than 700 Americans lived and worked on the grounds. Several hundred Afghans joined them during the day to translate, perform administrative functions, and clean the buildings. Employees wore identification badges around their necks. Blue cards were reserved for Americans with security clearances. The Afghan support staff had yellow ones that restricted their movements and subjected them to additional screening. When USAID administrator Rajiv Shah came to Kabul for a visit, he thanked the Afghan staff for their bravery and commitment during a town hall meeting in the embassy atrium. They never heard his words because guards barred yellow-badged Afghan staffers from attending the event.

As far as prisons went, the compound wasn't all that grim. There were a swimming pool, a bar called the Duck and Cover, and an Afghan-run café that served sandwiches and smoothies. A small convenience store stocked potato chips, candy bars, and lots of alcohol. The senior staff lived in apartments with kitchens, living rooms, and flat-screen televisions. Coish got a "hooch" -- a trailer containing a twin bed, a small desk and armoire, a bathroom, and a telephone with a Maryland area code. The trailer was surrounded with sandbags. To accommodate the influx of new civilians, the hooches were stacked on top of each other, with metal ladders and catwalks to access the second story.

Once she started her job, she began to understand why her colleagues had no great love for their work. Meetings consumed much of the day. Her boss expected her to be at her desk until 10 at night to draft memos, cables, and talking points for senior officials to read at meetings with Afghans. Nobody wanted her to go out and talk to her Afghan contacts or to soak up the country. They simply wanted responses to their emails right away. Much of what she was asked to do could have been accomplished back in Washington -- at far less cost to American taxpayers. But then she wouldn't have been counted as part of the State Department's "civilian surge," which was intended to dramatically increase the ranks of diplomats and USAID personnel in Afghanistan in tandem with the military's troop surge.

Most of Coish's colleagues also spent all day in their cubicles, hunched over computers. Embassy rules prevented Americans from leaving the compound unless they had official business -- a meeting with an Afghan government official, dinner with a European diplomat, a visit to a U.S.-funded development project -- and even then they had to obtain permission from the security office, which allotted the armored cars in the motor pool. Restaurants and offices had to be on a list of approved locations. Staffers had to identify the people with whom they were meeting and then submit reports upon their return to the embassy compound detailing the substance of their discussions with any citizens of countries listed on the State Department's Security Environment Threat List, which, of course, included Afghanistan. Coish had enough friends outside the embassy to know that the regulations were needlessly onerous. American aid workers and journalists regularly drove around in unarmored Toyota Corollas. Being kidnapped or shot was always  a possibility, but Kabul was far safer than Baghdad, especially if you kept a low profile. If it wouldn't have been a firing offense, she would have summoned a taxi to pick her up from Massoud Circle and take her for a night on the town. Every evening brought another invitation: an exhibition at an art gallery, drinks at a journalist's house, dinner with an Afghan tycoon, a party hosted by expatriates working for nongovernmental organizations. She figured all of them were places to glean information. She eventually managed to leave nearly every night, but doing so often required creative obfuscation on her security forms to get an exit pass and an embassy vehicle. If her vehicle ever struck pedestrians or another car, the security office did not want her driver to stop and check on those who had been hit. "Attempt to put as much space between yourself and the accident site as possible," the office urged.

The most powerful person on the embassy compound was not the ambassador but the head of the security office. His goal was to ensure that nobody working for the embassy was killed or wounded, which resulted in a near-zero-risk policy that kept diplomats and USAID officers from doing their jobs most effectively. Meetings and trips could be canceled, often with little notice, if the officer deemed the journey too dangerous, even if it was of vital importance. Reward was rarely balanced against risk. To several staffers, it seemed as if those in the security office didn't share everyone else's goal of winning the war against the Taliban. The security office "has turned us into women and children on the Titanic," one embassy official groused.

A near-daily flurry of alarmist warnings from the security office sowed fear among embassy staffers: A suicide car bomber was driving around the city looking for Americans to target; a crowd of disabled veterans was protesting in the circle, causing dangerous traffic jams; Afghans posing as visa seekers planned to attack one of the checkpoints. The security office sent embassy-wide emails urging everyone to keep a copy of the DS-3088 Bomb Threat Report Form near their telephones. "In the event that a threatening call is received," the office wrote, the employee "should calmly begin taking notes on the form, obtaining as much information as possible and asking the questions contained therein." Some staffers took to traveling from the embassy to the USAID compound by an underground tunnel, even though the street was blocked off for 200 yards in either direction. Most of Coish's colleagues assumed that she was risking near-certain death or abduction by hopping the wall every night. An FBI agent whom she met in the dining hall became so concerned about her travels that he eventually grabbed her mobile phone, pulled out the battery, and copied down the serial number -- so his buddies could track her if she was kidnapped.

For those who lacked paranoia or Coish's gift for bending the rules, there were furloughs every few months sponsored by the embassy's morale officer. The offers came by email.

One began with the tantalizing subject line "Magical Mystery Excursion!" It opened with a picture of a caged dog and two other forlorn mutts.

Do you wonder what Afghanistan is really like?

Worried that you'll never see anything except the airport?

Are your only photographs of sandbags?

Then respond quickly.

It ended with three photos of frolicking dogs.

There were only 15 spaces. All were claimed within a minute. The destination, it turned out, was the Gardens of Babur, a historic park in Kabul that hundreds of Afghan families strolled through every weekend. The embassy personnel were escorted by Filipino contract security guards.

With off-campus trips a rarity, Coish's colleagues sought to have fun within the compound. Their email inboxes filled up with announcements of upcoming diversions:

RAMBO IN AFGHANISTAN: A screening of Rambo III at the Duck and Cover. "Wear a headband for $1 off drinks."

FIRST MEETING OF THE KABUL FLY FISHING FORUM: "Preliminary research reveals there are trout fishing opportunities in Afghanistan." [Of course, no embassy staffer was allowed off the compound for a fishing trip.]

WINE & SWINE PARTY: Held at the quarters of the Marines who guarded the embassy, the festivities would begin with afternoon volleyball matches and swimming. They advertised that "North Carolina BBQ experts" would be brought in "to cook these porkers." [Apparently nobody bothered to consider the cultural offense of roasting a pig in a Muslim country.]

HOLIDAY CRAFT MAKING!: "No talent is necessary! Just come and enjoy the day with holiday crafts, music, and sweets! Please bring scissors, tape, and glue sticks if you have them."

The amusements grew tiresome after a while. Some staffers retreated to their trailers to watch movies on their laptops. Others grew homesick and despondent. The embassy health clinic doled out increasing quantities of antidepressant pills, and when a State Department psychiatrist arrived in February 2010 for a month-long visit, there was a rush to make appointments.

The most common salve, however, was booze. For those not lucky enough to be invited to a private party in one of the apartments, the Duck and Cover -- whose logo featured a duck wearing a combat helmet perched atop sandbags -- was the place to go. On Thursday nights, staffers crammed shoulder to shoulder in the pub, downing cans of Heineken, glasses of cheap Australian white wine, and bottles of hard lemonade. The place remained hopping until last call at 2 in the morning, when everyone stumbled back to his or her hooch.

But such nights were tame compared with Mardi Gras in 2010, when the embassy's social committee threw the party that almost ended all parties. Hundreds of revelers, including thick-necked security contractors, raggedy aid workers, and suit- wearing diplomats from other countries, packed into a tent next to the main embassy office building. The organizers had procured more than enough liquor, but the partygoers had access to only two restrooms. The queue for the toilets grew so long that inebriated attendees began to relieve themselves elsewhere. The deputy Turkish ambassador urinated on the wall of the chancery building. So did two American men who worked at the embassy. A female staffer pulled off her underwear and squatted on a patch of grass near the flagpole. Eikenberry couldn't do anything about the Turk, but both of the American men were sent home. When the woman was hauled into her supervisor's office the following day and told she would be disciplined, she claimed to have a small bladder and threatened to lodge an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint. She was allowed to finish her tour in Kabul. The following week, the word came down that there would be no more blow-out parties until the Marine Corps birthday ball that fall, and alcohol purchases at the embassy convenience store would be limited to two bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per person per day.


Coish may have hated her job, but she was lucky to have a specific assignment before she arrived. Many people who were sent to Afghanistan as part of the civilian surge had no idea what they would be doing until they reached Kabul and waited around, often for a few weeks, for marching orders from supervisors at the embassy or the USAID mission. The allocations were random. People who wanted to work in the field found themselves sitting in a Kabul office, and those who had expected hot showers, air-conditioning, and fresh food wound up in tents on forward operating bases, eating meals out of bags.

The civilian surge was supposed to place more diplomats and USAID officers in southern districts where recently deployed U.S. troops were conducting counterinsurgency operations. But most of the new arrivals wound up staying in Kabul. By late 2010, more than two-thirds of the 1,100 civilian U.S. government employees in Afghanistan were stationed in the capital to feed the mushrooming bureaucracy at the embassy and the USAID mission. Although there were plenty of Afghans in the city with whom to collaborate, most embassy and USAID staffers were required to sit at their desks. When Coish asked to work at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, which was a key player in reconstruction programs, her boss released her for only three days a week, and even that came with a condition -- that she come in to the USAID office those evenings to draft memos and proofread cables.

It was the ninth year of America's war in Afghanistan, but it often felt like the ninth version of the first year, save for the massive expansion of the compound. Most staffers stayed for only a year, and 90 percent of them arrived and departed over the summer --  because that's what Foreign Service officers do everywhere else in the world. By late August, the embassy and USAID mission had a whole new crop of people who lacked institutional memory. To Coish, who arrived in April and witnessed the 2010 summer transition, "It was as if someone had pushed a giant reset button on the entire place."

From the outset, the civilian surge was bedeviled by a lack of initiative and creativity in Washington. Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of President Barack Obama's national security agenda, those responsible for hiring first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options. The personnel office also sought out retirees. A 79-year-old man was sent to the reconstruction team office in Kandahar.

USAID eventually agreed to hire outsiders for yearlong tours in Afghanistan. But the human resources team did not call up experts in private companies, universities, and nonprofit organizations. It waited for résumés to come over the transom. Most were from contractors who had worked in Iraq, often on wasteful projects that had accomplished little.

The result was almost as embarrassing as the first year of the Iraq occupation, when the Coalition Provisional Authority had given a 24-year-old who had never worked in finance the job of reopening Baghdad's stock exchange. The USAID field officer sent to Musa Qala, in Helmand province, was reassigned after she got into a fight with the Marines because they would not give her an air-conditioned trailer. Nawa, which was one of the safest districts in Helmand, could not hold down a State Department representative. The first one went on leave and never returned. So did the second one, but not before revealing to colleagues that he did not know the term ANSF, the commonly used acronym for the Afghan national security forces. The third one, who had been fired from his previous job as a town manager in Virginia, stayed.

"We're past the B Team," said Marc Chretien, a senior State Department official in Helmand. "We're at Team C."

It was not just rank-and-file civilians who did not acquit themselves well.

During his first meeting with Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa, Andrew Haviland, the top State Department official in Kandahar, boasted about how he had forged a close relationship with one of Wesa's predecessors, the strongman Gul Agha Sherzai, the longtime rival of the Karzai family. A little background reading would have revealed that Wesa hated Sherzai, who was constantly meddling in the province. Then Haviland lectured Wesa about the need to work with powerful tribal chieftains in Kandahar, though many other American officials had been urging the governor to do the opposite. Infuriated, Wesa threw Haviland out of his office. "I never want to see him here again," Wesa subsequently told a one-star Army general in Kandahar.

Haviland then proceeded to demolish his relationship with the military. Prior to his arrival, the top general in Kandahar had removed a chain-link fence between the military and civilian headquarters buildings on the Kandahar Airfield. But when the civilians moved into a new building 50 yards away, the regional security officer at the embassy in Kabul ordered that a new fence be erected. The gates were equipped with combination locks, and military officers on the general's command staff, who possessed higher-level security clearances than many of the civilians, assumed that they would get the code so they could easily interact with one another. But Haviland refused to divulge it. And he made his subordinates sign nondisclosure agreements subjecting them to sanctions if they shared the numbers. "Forget about everyone working together to fix Afghanistan. He wanted to be separate," one civilian who worked there told me. "It was not just embarrassing. It was idiotic."

In May 2010, I accompanied Chretien on a trip to Marja, the Taliban-controlled enclave that the Marines had invaded with much fanfare three months earlier, to observe how the civilians there were performing. There were five of them -- one from State, two from USAID, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and, because it was in Helmand, one stabilization advisor from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Given the stakes in Marja, they should all have been stars. One of the USAID men, a young New Englander, was indeed a model of dynamism and creativity. But the other USAID staffer seemed lost in the heat and dust. Chretien and I observed him one morning as he woke late and then did his laundry and puttered around. While he wandered the base, we chatted with a stream of residents who had come to see Haji Zahir, the ex-con district governor. One of them was the district health director, whom we peppered with questions about the state of Marja's clinics. That evening, we told the lost USAID officer about our conversation and asked him for his thoughts about the health director. He sheepishly admitted that he had never met the man. In his three weeks in Marja, he had not yet left the base, even though the Marines were driving and walking around every day.

The USAID officer in Marja left within a few months. And he wasn't alone. Forty percent of U.S. government civilians who were assigned to Helmand from July 2009 to June 2010 did not last six months. The churn complicated efforts to increase the number of civilians in the field. By late 2010, USAID was hiring 20 new people a month to go to Afghanistan, but it was losing seventeen.

When he returned to Camp Leatherneck, Chretien sent a note to the embassy about the staffing problems in Helmand. "It seems our best and brightest have burned out long ago and we're getting the straphangers these days," he wrote. "Or as one wag put it, 'they're just along for the chow.' No need to go into details here -- let's just say that there's enough deadwood here that it's becoming a fire hazard."

Project On Government Oversight


State of Disrepair

If the State Department really wants to lead U.S. foreign policy, it needs to stop complaining about the military and act more like it.

The most conventional of conventional wisdom in Washington in the past five years is that the U.S. State Department is dramatically undernourished for the work required of American civilian power. Since 2000, there has been a staggering number of think-tank reports advocating a more robust diplomatic corps. The last three secretaries of state and the last two directors of the U.S. Agency for International Development have not only had ambitious goals for improving their departments, they have actually implemented at least the resourcing of them: Congress has increased funding by 155 percent since 2003 and the size of the diplomatic corps has grown by 50 percent.

There has emerged strong support for "whole-of-government operations," by which is meant the coordinated use of all elements of state power. The Obama administration has dedicated itself to practicing "smart power," a further polishing of the concept, emphasizing a rebalancing of governmental effort away from dependence on military force and toward diplomatic and economic levers. Inside the Beltway, whole-of-government operations and smart power are the Holy Grail, much yearned for yet elusive. Earnest advocates of effective American engagement in the world envision the military's role returning to small proportions as other government agencies, principally the State Department, increase their influence and activity.

Yet there is practically no one who believes the State Department is currently performing at a level adequate to the need. There are no voices arguing the State Department is a diplomatic equivalent to the dominance displayed by the American military, none who think America's diplomats stand astride the world like a colossus. Our diplomats punch below their weight and carry less influence than our country's power ought to deliver. Even sympathetic observers conclude that "today's Foreign Service does not have to a sufficient degree the knowledge, skills, abilities, and outlooks needed to equip career diplomats to conduct 21st-century diplomacy." Despite the substantial increase in the workforce at State, it continues to contract out work to the private sector that is mission-critical or whose function is inherently governmental.

State has a better record than it gets credit for, certainly. It established 20 new embassies in Europe after 1991 without additional personnel, and the diplomats who have joined the Foreign Service since 2001 are much more likely to want to deploy to Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and to change the world for the better, rather than remain safely ensconced in embassies and report on changes as they occur.

Still, the Department of State underperforms, both for what the country needs and for the resources it has. Foggy Bottom chants the mantra of whole-of-government operations and yet it remains -- even by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's own assessment -- inadequate to the task.

If further proof of this inadequacy is necessary to prove the point, look no further than the major swaths of civilian activity that continue to migrate to the military. The militarization of American foreign policy does not reflect an ambition by the military; it reflects the vacuum left by inadequate civilian power. Work needs doing, and the State Department remains incapable of doing it. In Afghanistan, small unit military leaders, rather than diplomats, are working to create local governance councils throughout the country. Moreover, the military command has established a high-level anti-corruption task force and is setting up legal and judicial structures -- both functions that ought to be civilian activities. Despite the existence of an embassy staffed by more than 1,000 civilians in Kabul, those tasks have not been undertaken by civilians.

State's inability to improve is not for lack of ideas or effort at the highest echelons of Foggy Bottom. Typically, secretaries of state invest little in the professionalization of the department. Instead, they spend all their time on policies rather than the functioning of the institution. But the last three secretaries of state developed major initiatives to improve the performance of the department: Secretary Colin Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, Secretary Condoleezza Rice's Transformational Diplomacy, and Secretary Hillary Clinton's Diplomacy 3.0. In all three cases, the leadership teams identified shortcomings, developed policies to redress the shortcomings, and were successful in gaining funding support for their initiatives. What none of them proved successful at has been substantially affecting the culture of the State Department.

Fundamentally, State is an underperforming institution.  It has significant reservoirs of capability but it makes poor use of them; it has needs it cannot find ways to meet. Its institutional reflex is to complain that it lacks the resources to create change -- most recently demonstrated in the insistence of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) that State needs more money and more people in order to support training. Thus State both justifies its current inadequacy and shields itself from reforms that would improve the organization.

There are no more fervent advocates of a more vibrant American diplomacy than the American military. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen have been the apostles of greater State Department funding, routinely advocating for it publicly, to the Congress, and within government counsels. True, they have not declined additional defense spending in favor of diplomatic funding, or offered more than what would be considered a trivial amount of money in the defense budget to achieve that improved State Department (roughly $100 million in the defense budget has a dual key for spending on activities that State and Defense jointly agree need doing). But they have gone further than any other DOD leadership in supporting increased spending for diplomacy. Both Gates and Mullen testified with the secretary of state to Congress in support of greater funding.

Bringing the Pentagon's sensibilities to the problems of improving American diplomacy sheds light on why State has not been more successful. The Department of State is deficient in three crucial cultural areas in which the Department of Defense excels: mission focus, education, and programming. Adopting DOD attitudes and commitments to these areas may prove more valuable to State than any additional money DOD leaders could help attain.

The U.S. military exists to fight and win our nation's wars; everything else is subordinated to that essential task. Moreover, it is the function American taxpayers and their representatives in Congress value, and demand of, their military. The Department of State has no equivalent focus. To the extent the institution can identify its priorities, what State values about American diplomacy is engagement in multinational negotiation and reporting on international activity. These are the functions that shape the culture of the State Department; they are not, however, the functions of greatest value outside the institution.

Protecting Americans at home and abroad through excellence in consular service should be the primary function of America's diplomats: preventing dangerous enemies from attaining visas to travel to the United States, ensuring Americans traveling overseas have the protection of their government, encouraging educational and other involvement with talented foreigners. These are the bread and butter -- what prospectors would call the "grub stake" -- of diplomacy, the activities that can only be performed by diplomats but on the success of which all Americans rely.

Yet they are also the activities least valued by the State Department: Consular service is the lowest priority "cone," or specialization, in the Foreign Service. Talented diplomats are not tracked into that branch. It is as though the Army and Marine Corps did not consider ground combat their principal function. This needs to change if the State Department is to build a strong institutional base as the lead agency for U.S. foreign policy. State needs to clearly embrace consular activity as its essential function and realign the incentives and thereby the culture of the institution. Doing so would bring the State Department significant advantages, both in the operation of the organization and in its support by the public and Congress.

The people of the State Department are among the American government's most talented. They come into the diplomatic corps with, on average, a graduate education and 11 years of work before joining the Foreign Service. State's personnel policies utilize the skills developed before entry into the service; they do not build skills. Hiring needed skills rather than developing them isn't a bad strategy, but it hinges crucially on identifying skills the institution needs and recruiting them. By its own admission, State is not hiring the skills it identifies as essential.

The Department of State compounds the error of not recruiting the skills it needs by not investing in the kind of professional education and training that will make our diplomats successful for the demands they face as their careers progress. The people who are successful in the State Department are people who can be thrown in the deep end of the swimming pool and not drown; but the department never teaches them to swim, and the successful ones even come to discredit the value of swimming lessons, because they succeeded without them.

State has twice in the past seven years been authorized increases in staffing levels to build time into diplomats' careers for education and training: Secretary Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative in 2003 and Secretary Rice's Transformational Diplomacy Initiative in 2006. More recently, Secretary Clinton has also requested and received additional Foreign Service and civil-service positions. Yet none of these substantial increases of people resulted in American diplomats receiving appreciably more professional education and training, or building time into their career tracks to participate in it. Training remains either a voluntary (off-duty) activity or something the department's most valuable people are not freed up to participate in. Secretary Powell made mandatory some valuable leadership training, but there has been no major effort to develop a core curriculum of knowledge that diplomats need at different thresholds in their careers or to develop a process by which diplomats are rewarded for undertaking it.

It merits mention that even the most starry-eyed believers in leading through civilian power assess the cost to produce it to be minimal. They are not arguing to double or triple the State Department budget; they are arguing for marginal annual increases. One of the most functionally ambitious and carefully accounted studies of increased funding puts the sticker price of achieving sufficiency at only $3.3 billion across four years. Such a sum is roughly a 1.5 percent increase per year over the $52.8 billion current spending for operations of the department, a small number even before comparison to the $525 billion baseline budget request of the Defense Department for the coming year. Think of it: 1.5 percent per year for four years.

Two conclusions leap out from this fact: First, that it would take pathetically little to invest at the level diplomatic experts consider fully funding their needs; and second, that if these experts believe their performance can be so vastly improved on such a thin margin of additional resourcing, they probably have very little idea what it would take to actually make themselves a successful organization.

It is tempting just to give State all the money it could imagine (years of chronic underfunding have badly diminished its ability to even imagine truly ambitious horizons) and hold it accountable for producing the dramatic improvements in performance its advocates believe are just barely out of reach. But the State Department lacks the rigorous culture of program analysis and evaluation that exists in the Defense Department, and which provides DOD a much stronger basis for advancing and defending its spending requests within the executive branch and to Congress. It is arguable that the second most powerful person in the Pentagon is not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the comptroller, who develops and defends the budget. Until 2009, the State Department didn't even have a parallel figure; it still lacks the analytic offices undergirding DOD's comptroller.

It is perverse that the chronic underfunding of the Department of State (and there isn't even a faction of serious policy analysts who would argue that State has been adequately funded since the end of the Cold War) created a vague budgetary culture. One would think that resource demands competing for limited funds would foster careful husbandry and transparent accounting. Just the opposite is true. State has a terrible reputation on Capitol Hill for pulling rabbits out of its budgetary hat instead of carefully costing and tracking programs in ways that would build congressional confidence in its ability to manage larger budgets. For State to achieve the kinds of sustained budget increases that advocates of stronger civilian power seek, it will need to develop a long-term budget perspective and the ability to prioritize its activity to make better use of the resources it gets.

Deficiencies in focus, education, and programmatic proficiency impede the State Department's work; investing in those areas could, in the space of just a few years, produce American diplomats who genuinely are the peers of their military counterparts and who can undertake with a high level of skill the work at which our country urgently needs them to be successful. The means are actually largely in the State Department's authorities; very little legislation or funding would be needed from Congress to bring about the change.

The militarization of American foreign policy is bad for our country. We can and should strengthen our civilian power. But the State Department has not proven capable of identifying and redressing its inadequacies. The recent QDDR claims to pose the question, "How can we do better?" but its answer can be summed up as, "By having more money and more senior positions." Yet resources cannot wholly be the answer, given the influx of money State has received in the past decade.

State must develop the means of assessing activity so that it can make a credible case that money spent on civilian power is a better investment than the alternatives. Asserting leadership has not worked; it must be earned by demonstrating the intellectual and operational proficiencies that will draw adherents. Credibility begins with demonstrating excellence and asking for it to be rewarded once achieved. Instead of surveying its own ranks (as the QDDR did), State should throw itself open to the kind of consumer satisfaction surveys that would inform its priorities and resourcing. It would learn an awful lot from interagency partners, recipients of both civilian and military engagement, aid organizations, and other stakeholders.

Imagine a State Department that actually does lead American foreign policy, one whose ideas for shaping the world in positive ways drive the agenda of America's engagement and build a broad basis of public support to which elected leaders would respond. Imagine a State Department that produces data that drive public and congressional analyses of problems and programs and whose diplomats are so expert that they are foreign and domestic journalists' preferred interviews and major universities' preferred hires. Imagine a department that is a magnet for entrepreneurial people of diverse skills and which puts those skills to creative use, fostering professional growth, with employees whose ability is so obvious that they are pulled by other agencies and constantly at risk of being poached by the private sector so that State has to fight to keep them. Imagine a department in which competition for retention is so fierce that it drives a personnel pyramid wide at the base, with an educational program so rigorous it equips our diplomats to succeed at every level of their career and draws applicants from the military and foreign countries to learn what our diplomats know. And imagine a department with personnel policies that identify emergent needs and encourage activity rather than description; one whose senior leadership is so proficient and commands activity so expansive that the Pentagon would seek to place four-star generals as deputies to diplomats rather than give diplomats consolatory slots in our military headquarters.

We should not just imagine such a State Department. We should demand it. And we know how to achieve these things; we do it in our military. Businesses all across the country achieve it. We just don't bother to do it in our civilian agencies on which the success of our military efforts depends. The State Department and the Obama administration should seize the moment and create a more solid basis for civilian-led American diplomacy. The country deserves it, and the good people of the State Department deserve it, too.

Alex Wong/Getty Images