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.