Afghanistan's civilian surge comes with enormous price tag and uncertain results

Add some new numbers to the eye-popping price tag of the unpopular Afghan war: $2 billion, which is the total cost of the Obama administration's ongoing surge of civilian officials into Afghanistan, and $500,000, which what it costs taxpayers to deploy each federal employee to the war zone for a single year.

The numbers come from a new joint audit from a pair of government watchdogs, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and the State Department's Office of Inspector General. The report, released on Thursday, found that the U.S. has spent roughly $2 billion since 2009 on the civilian surge -- a core part of the administration's counterinsurgency strategy for the war -- and warned that the costs would spike even higher in coming years as the American military begins to leave Afghanistan and State opens up a pair of expensive consulates far from Kabul.

"State and other agencies are likely to experience increased costs related to an expanded civilian presence in Afghanistan, and State faces significant challenges in planning to address these costs," the report noted. "The U.S. military's withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely lead to cost increases for State due to key military security functions that State will assume."

Much of the current cost of the surge comes from the high price of deploying each federal employee to Afghanistan for a year, which the report estimated at between $410,000 and $570,000 per person. The number of civilian officials -- drawn from departments like State, Treasury, Justice, and Agriculture -- has tripled since 2009, rising from just over 300 to 1,040 as of this past June.

But the employees don't come cheap. The report estimated that each earns $110,000-$122,733 in base salary; a danger pay bonus of $38,500-$42,957; a post-differential bonus of $38,500-$42,957; Sunday pay of $5,500-$6,137; and overtime pay of $22,000-$30,683. The additional costs come from giving the employees hazardous-terrain training, living accommodations, and two trips home per year.

The breakdown of such expenses, which has never been released in such detail by the government before, will fuel new political unease about the Afghan war, which majorities of the country believe is no longer worth the high human or financial costs.

Critics of the administration's war strategy are also likely to seize on the fact that the cost of deploying the civilian officials -- most of whom cannot leave their secured compounds in Kabul for security reasons -- are rapidly approaching the costs of supporting combat personnel battling the Taliban around the country. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that the cost of supporting every service member in Afghanistan has been steadily increasing, rising from $507,000 in fiscal year 2009 to $667,000 in fiscal year 2010 and an estimated $694,000 per person this fiscal year.

The enormity of the new figures raises the obvious question of what U.S. taxpayers, who have long since turned against the war, are getting for the money. The answer is more than a little disheartening.

In one of his final interviews before leaving Kabul this summer, then- American Ambassador Karl Eikenberry told The New York Times that the civilian surge was one of his proudest accomplishments, exceeded only by his role in fostering the growth of the Afghan military.

"The second major achievement is having led the civilian surge," he told the newspaper. "I think on our watch we did make a difference."

But the Inspector General of Eikenberry's own State Department has consistently taken a far more jaundiced view of the civilian surge. In a scathing report in March 2010, the department's internal watchdogs cited an array of shortcomings, from security constraints which prevented civilian personnel from actually interacting with many ordinary Afghans, to short tours which meant that the officials spent most of their time simply getting up to speed on the country's complexities only to leave once they had managed to do so.

"The unprecedented pace and scope of the civilian buildup, the need for these new officers to arrive in Kabul before support infrastructure expansions have been completed, and the complexity of establishing arrangements to equip the new subject-matter experts for success in the field will constrain the ability of these new officers in the short-term to promote stability, good governance, and rule of law (ROL) in Afghanistan," the March 2010 report said.

In particular, it noted that poor security "limits the embassy staff's exposure to Afghans other than regular government interlocutors and constrains the reporting and advocacy work that U.S. direct-hires from all agencies were brought to Afghanistan to undertake." At the same time, it says key departments like the embassy's political affairs section were hampered by inexperienced officials serving in Afghanistan solely for one year.

"The biggest challenge facing [the political affairs section] is the combination of one-year tours, inexperienced officers, and simultaneous rotation of all personnel," the report said. "As the inspection began, no officer had been in the job for longer than two months. Almost all except the counselor and deputy were on their first political reporting tour. Many had not received a hand-over memo from their predecessor, and most did not receive an orientation to the section's work although they did receive the mission's overall administrative orientation."

Thursday's audit focused solely on the high cost of the civilian surge, and didn't try to measure its effectiveness. But that may not matter: With even Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman arguing that the war has dragged on too long without clear progress, the mounting cost-cutting pressures on Capitol Hill will likely mean that the civilian surge, like the military influx which preceded it, will soon begin to be wound down.

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