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  • Guns and Butter:America Desperately Needs Better Civil-Military Coordination
  • Patricia DeGennaro (bio)

On April 1 this year, a riot erupted in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of northern Afghanistan's Balkh province. Infuriated by a Florida preacher's burning of a Quran, hundreds of Afghans overran a United Nations compound, killing three U.N. staffers and four security guards. The tragic incident was a reminder of how contemporary conflicts are increasingly shaped by a blurring of lines. A bigot on the fringes of American life becomes a player in a war zone on the other side of the world. Angry civilians become tools in the hands of anti-Western insurgents. And aid workers—devoted to improving desperate conditions in a war-torn country—become targets for deadly violence. [End Page 79]

In a perverse way, the attack—and many others like it—mirror another blurring, one that has increasingly shaped American national-security policy in the past decade. An oversized but overstretched military is being asked to take on a wide range of responsibilities that have historically been handled by diplomats and aid workers. At the same time, an underfunded and unprepared civilian corps has become completely reliant for protection on armed forces and paramilitary security contractors. When soldiers take on the roles of diplomats and aid workers, and when it becomes impossible to distinguish civilian staffers from the heavily armed forces that surround them, the line between military and civilian starts to disappear—for those on both sides of the conflict.

In 2007, I spent time in Mazar-i-Sharif during a three-week consulting project in Balkh province, working for an American firm that had been hired by USAID to advise Afghan officials on governance and reconstruction. I was part of a very small team, consisting of myself, an American colleague, and an Afghan counterpart. Yet wherever we went, we were accompanied by a heavily armed, 10-man security detail. We traveled in a convoy—the two Americans in an armored SUV, with one "soft vehicle" in front of us and another behind us. (To my embarrassment and chagrin, our Afghan colleague was relegated to one of the less-protected vehicles.)

The intense security was intended to protect us, of course. And there is no doubt that Afghanistan is a dangerous place. But most reasonable observers would have concluded that I was part of a military unit of some kind. Most Afghans—and most Americans—would have been hard-pressed to recognize that I was a "civilian," somehow distinct from the armed men who surrounded me. Predictably, the arrangement made it rather difficult to communicate effectively with—much less gain the trust of—the Afghans I was ostensibly there to help.

I had become a living symbol of a trend that has distorted American foreign-policy during the past two decades, one that will require a significant cultural and bureaucratic transformation to reverse.

Faith in Force

While working in aid and development in the Balkans in the 1990s, I learned the limits of the "soft power" wielded by diplomats and development professionals. But in the past two decades, the American foreign-policy establishment has tragically overlearned the same lesson. When the Cold War ended, a new consensus formed inside the Beltway. In this view, America's unrivaled military power was more than just a powerful instrument of national security. It was deemed the single most effective instrument of national policy, and it required more resources to carry out this larger role.

Despite hopes and expectations that the end of the Cold War would usher in an unprecedented era of peace, the United States has been involved in at least one war [End Page 80] every two years since 1990. Establishing global hegemony has been a costly process. Between 2001 and 2011, combined spending on international affairs more than doubled, from $317.8 billion to $715.4 billion—not including the discretionary spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet less than 13 percent of that increase went to the diplomatic side.

A thirst for arms derives from a belief, deeply ingrained in American political culture, that one can never have enough protection. Much of the...


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