Quickie: Reconstruction Chief Quits, Putting ‘Civilian Surge’ in Doubt

Ambassador Herbst heads to NDU’s Center for Complex Operations.
Via Spencer Ackerman of Danger Room: Reconstruction Chief Quits, Putting ‘Civilian Surge’ in Doubt:

Most observers of Afghanistan say the war doesn’t have a prayer if the U.S. can’t send a cadre of civilian experts — diplomats, engineers, farmers — to rebuild Afghanistan. But on Friday, the diplomat in charge of building that force quietly resigned. Uh oh.

John E. Herbst, a 31-year veteran diplomat, has been the State Department’s coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization since 2006. Set up by the Bush administration in 2004, his office, known as S/CRS, sought to create precisely that legion of civilian reconstruction experts to send abroad when crisis strikes. Danger Room has learned that despite building the so-called Civilian Response Corps up from a handful of diplomats, Friday was Herbst’s last day on the job.

Ambassador Robert Geert Loftis, who helped negotiate the 2008 accord to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, started yesterday as S/CRS’s acting coordinator; State’s website just announced the leadership change today.
Herbst dealt with a lot of challenges as S/CRS’s second chief. Although the Bush administration created the office in 2004, Congress didn’t really fund it until 2008, hobbling its goal of creating a standing interagency crew of governance, agriculture and building experts ready to operate overseas.

Since then, Herbst pulled together what’s become an $800 million effort that claims around 1100 federal civilian employees. But in reality, only about 300 of them can deploy at any given time, fewer than two U.S. Army companies. And while the corps has sent civilians to Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan, the State Department’s powerful regional bureaus, special envoys and embassies have largely sidestepped it.

Take Afghanistan. In the Obama administration’s much-hyped “civilian surge,” corps members have helped the U.S. embassy and the military write a key planning document last year. But Herbst has complained that it’s been otherwise ignored. American diplomacy and development work in conflict areas remains largely a military job. In Afghanistan, U.S. infantrymen politic with local potentates on reconstruction projects. The Army is thinking about bolstering troops’ negotiation skills on the expectation that the civilian diplomats will stay at home.

Herbst has eyed the exits for awhile. In July, the National Defense University named him its next director of its Center for Complex Operations. But the future of his now-vacated office and the corps he built is less secure. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, expected as soon as next month, will likely recommend a structural facelift for both.

Ambassador Herbst writes, “After a long and rewarding career, I have decided to retire from the Foreign Service, and move on to other challenges. In parting, I wanted to take a look at the beginning of the Office and discuss what a difference we have made in just a few short years.”
Read his reflection as S/CRS Coordinator — A Look Back: Ambassador Herbst Retires, Reflects on Four Years as Coordinator