Boys from Kandahar, Afghanistan, learn how to build a shelf with help from the U.S. Air Force earlier this year. In the absence of civilian aid workers, the U.S. military must deviate from fighting to take on humanitarian and community building jobs.

Boys from Kandahar, Afghanistan, learn how to build a shelf with help from the U.S. Air Force earlier this year. In the absence of civilian aid workers, the U.S. military must deviate from fighting to take on humanitarian and community building jobs. (Mark Abueg/Courtesy U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama’s national security team began campaigning this fall to expand U.S. development and diplomacy, they described a desperate need to help American troops charged with winning wars, hearts and minds in Afghanistan, Iraq and worldwide.

But in Washington, foreign policy observers say the civilian cavalry won’t be arriving any time soon. Despite the White House pitch, foreign aid historically has few champions in Congress, where staffers closing the year in a contentious lame-duck session say there is little public desire to spend more abroad — and little cash to follow through.

Increasingly frustrated, Obama’s team, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has blasted Congress for nickel-and-diming plans to stabilize hard-won pockets of peace following nearly 10 years of wars that have cost the U.S. trillions.

The result is a political stalemate that leaves even more responsibility at the feet of the American military.

In Afghanistan, the war to win over the civilian population requires the same troops battling Taliban fighters to then provide reconstruction and humanitarian aid. It is the “build” phase of the military’s “clear, hold, and build” counterinsurgency strategy, and the military is eager to hand it off to civilians.

“Just because a soldier can doesn’t mean a soldier should,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said in a September speech in Texas.

To ease the military’s burden, the Obama administration is calling for more American diplomats, embassies and consulates around the world, help for poor countries and an expanded workforce for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

“Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers,” Gates said in September, flanked by Clinton, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Obama requested a $58 billion budget for international affairs spending for fiscal 2011, a modest increase over the $53 billion budget for 2010. Funds dedicated to the war zones represented the majority of the increase. But lawmakers cut that increase in half, slashing those accounts in bills awaiting final passage.

“The Congress took a huge whack at the budget the State Department submitted,” Gates said. “Having invested an enormous amount of money, we are arguing over a tiny amount of money.”

Though the international affairs budget is tiny relative to the $708 billion budgeted for defense, officials say it is crucial to fully fund preparations for the military handoff to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But appropriators cut 47 percent of the requested money for Iraq programs in the State Department’s Economic Support Fund, leaving $200 million for Iraq. The Afghanistan request was cut by a third, from $3.3 billion to $2.1 billion. The Pakistan budget shrank $225 million to $1.1 billion.

Hill staffers say the administration underestimated the tight budget climate.

“The Congress has had to cut tens of billions from the president’s budget requests,” said Tim Reiser, senior aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. “This is just one piece of that.”

The final spending measure likely will be rolled into one omnibus bill, and it’s doubtful that lawmakers would re-insert the missing billions that Obama wanted.

“Even though the needs exist,” Reiser said, “it’s hard to make the case for large increases in spending when budget pressures and the mood of the country at this moment run so strongly in the other direction.”

Skeptics say the funding was insufficient even before the cuts were made.

“The civilian and diplomatic surges that are being talked about are so modest that even if they were to be achieved in the ways that people are realistically talking about, they would not have a dramatic effect on the war one way or the other,” said Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, author of the new book “How Wars End” and a former National Security Council staffer.

Clinton and Gates have appeared shoulder-to-shoulder in roughly a dozen appearances advocating for development, and Obama devoted his September appearance at the United Nations opening session to development.

Yet many in the mostly liberal core of development advocates are disappointed that a Democratic lineup at the White House, State Department and Congress — even strong support from military leaders asking for help in Afghanistan — has barely moved the needle.

“This is unprecedented,” said Kristin Lord, vice president of the Center for a New American Security, a left-leaning Washington think tank. “If this lineup, with this amount of high-level, presidential attention to these issues hasn’t been able to make a change, the question is: Are they going to be able to [ever]?”

“The fundamental reason that Gates and Clinton are having such problems moving Congress on this,” Rose said, “is that the executive branch is actually responsible for formulating and implementing national security policy and getting things done, and Congress is responsible for getting reelected and for responding to the will of the people.

“Nobody in Congress wants to confront either the costs of staying in Afghanistan and doing the job right or the risks of leaving ... because it’s a thankless choice.”

Obama tripled the number of civilian workers in Afghanistan last year to almost 1,000 by January 2010, but fewer than 200 workers have arrived since. Already unable to fill slots, State and USAID are recruiting new and less qualified workers, requiring more training and slowing deployments, according to a recent audit by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a watchdog for Congress. The audit also warned that a civilian surge “may not be sustainable at planned levels.”

“In general, we concur with the findings,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, in an e-mail. “The issues raised in it are not new to the embassy and we are already addressing the shortcomings it notes.”

Hayden said her embassy anticipates fielding 460 new personnel by March.

“It is absolutely critical that we continue to keep that coming,” Maj. Gen. John Campbell, Regional Command-East commander, told Pentagon reporters last month.

In Washington, USAID is in a multiyear effort to hire thousands of new foreign service officers and staff, but with no more civilian reserves to surge, many doubt its effect on the war.

The administration is not giving up. Last month, Clinton penned a 5,400-word essay in Foreign Affairs, the same journal in which Gates, in April, made his own pitch for help.

Congress, she wrote, “must appreciate the scale and scope of the reconstruction and stabilization missions that U.S. civilians are being asked to undertake.”

“The House and the Senate have appropriated hundreds of billions of dollars for the military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq,” wrote Clinton. “The diplomatic and development activities there represent a fraction of that cost. ... These missions can succeed, but only with the necessary congressional leadership and support. Congress must provide the necessary funding now.”

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