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Funding for the System Administration Force

March 31, 2009


During last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to focus on the conflict in Afghanistan — a conflict that, by all accounts, was heading south quickly. In fulfillment of that promise, the President recently announced his strategy for Afghanistan. Among other things, the president announced a surge of hundreds of State Department employees and civilian aid workers and development specialists to complement increased troop levels. This new civilian surge is supposed to provide “everything from civic guidance, to humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan — basically teaching President Hamid Karzai’s government how to take care of its own. Washington would fund a similar development drive in Pakistan, again, to get locals to trust their own government to provide services, so they don’t turn to the Taliban etc. for help.” [“The Afghan Plan, ‘Mr. Obama’s War’,” by Kimberly Dozier, CBS News, 30 March 2009]. For readers of this blog and Tom Barnett’s Weblog, the notion of a Civilian Response Corps should have a familiar ring. Tom has been advocating for a force he calls a System Administration (SysAdmin) Force for a number of years.


The seeds of such a force are already in place within the State Department and, as noted above, it is called the Civilian Response Corps (CRC). The State Department’s CRC web site describes the group this way:

“The Civilian Response Corps provides the U.S. Government with a pool of qualified, trained, and ready-to-deploy civilian professionals to support overseas reconstruction and stabilization operations. Additionally, the Civilian Response Corps reinforces regular standing staff in Washington and overseas in support of reconstruction and stabilization operations in countries or regions that are at risk of, in, or are in transition from conflict or civil strife. If U.S. national security interests are at stake, we must be prepared to respond quickly with the right civilian experts.”

The SysAdmin force envisioned by Tom is a much larger force than a mere cadre of professionals. But the CRC is a start. Under the plan announced by President Obama, the CRC is line for a significant increase in funding [“Flournoy: Create a U.S. Civilian Response Corps,” by John T. Bennett, Defense News, 30 March 2009].

“Michèle Flournoy, recently installed as the undersecretary of defense for policy, said March 27 that the war supplemental will feature ‘a substantial request for resources on the civilian side’ of the federal government. In comments made during a Brookings Institution-sponsored forum in Washington, Flournoy said the revamped Afghanistan strategy unveiled earlier the same day by President Barack Obama ‘requires a down payment’ on beefing up certain capabilities within non-Defense Department arms of the federal government. She did not say where in the executive branch the corps would be placed, but recommended it not be in the military.”

Tom and I wholeheartedly agree with Flournoy that the CRC should not reside within the Pentagon. On the other hand, we are not certain that State Department is the right place either. Lacking a better alternative, Tom has (tongue in cheek) recommended creating a Department of Everything Else as home for the SysAdmin force. Because the Civilian Response Corps must effectively coordinate interdepartmental activities, it should not be beholding to any of the departments from which it must draw resources — including the State Department. In recent years, the military has actively supported the implementation of a SysAdmin type force. At the Brookings Institution event, “U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, commander of the service’s Combined Arms Center, said … that it is imperative that Washington strengthen the ability of nonmilitary agencies to do a host of economic, developmental, diplomatic and political tasks.” These are nation-building tasks that may require a security component but, for the most part, are best carried out by civilians. The CRC would be in a much better position than the military to garner the support of relief and development groups in supporting development objectives.


As currently constituted, the “Civilian Response Corps consists of three complementary components:


  • “Active Component (CRC-A) officers are full-time Government employees whose specific job is to train for, prepare, and staff reconstruction, stabilization and conflict prevention efforts. They are able to deploy within 48 hours and focus on critical initial interagency functions such as assessment, planning, management, administrative, logistical, and resource mobilization.
  • Standby Component (CRC-S) officers are full-time employees of their departments who have specialized expertise useful in reconstruction and stabilization operations and are available to deploy within 30 days in the event of a reconstruction and/or stabilization operation.
  • Reserve Component (CRC-R) officers are U.S. citizens who have committed to be available within 45-60 days of call-up to serve as U.S. Government temporary employees in support of overseas reconstruction and stabilization operations. Reserve officers are critical to efforts to bring “normalcy” to countries by filling capabilities career U.S. Government employees simply cannot match in expertise or in number. (Please Note: the Reserve component has not yet been funded.)

“A number of countries are at imminent risk of falling into conflict and disarray. Crises can erupt suddenly, posing a number of stabilization challenges, particularly in the areas of peace and security, delivery of essential services, and effective governance. Because no single U.S. Government entity has all of the relevant expertise to deal with these threats, the Civilian Response Corps is a partnership of eight departments and agencies: the Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and Department of the Treasury. The Secretary of State, in partnership with the aforementioned agencies, has requested funding for 250 full time employees for an interagency Active component comprised of trained and equipped R&S first responders who can deploy in 48 hours to countries in crisis. The request would also fund training for 2,000 Standby members drawn from within these agencies. Additionally, it proposes to build a Reserve, whose members would be drawn from the private sector and state and local governments across the United States, with expertise in the range of processes necessary in a transition from crisis including: policing and rule of law, infrastructure development, economic stabilization, state and local governance, agriculture, and provision of basic services. Membership in the Active and Standby components was expanded to the interagency on July 16, 2008 at a ceremony held by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.”

At a time when companies are laying workers off, the CRC is actively seeking people to join its ranks (mostly, however, for its reserve pool). The recruiting pitch on the CRC web site states:

“Joining the Civilian Response Corps is about making a difference in people’s lives and seeing the impact all over the world. You will help build more effective partnerships among civilian departments and agencies, among our civilian and military institutions, with our many friends and allies abroad, and perhaps most importantly, with foreign leaders and citizens whose countries are in crisis, or approaching crisis, and who want our support. Currently the United States Government does not have an adequate pool of civilians available to deploy overseas to assist countries to transition as quickly as possible to governing themselves, sustaining themselves, and securing themselves – without U.S. or international assistance. The Civilian Response Corps is your opportunity to serve our Government in a civilian capacity and to have a positive impact on the world around you.”

It will be interesting to watch how the Civilian Response Corps grows and changes. Flournoy’s comments imply that the final home for the CRC has not yet been determined. Where it eventually ends up on the government organization chart will tell much about how viable its future will be. Position and funding translate into power in Washington, DC. The CRC is a good idea whose time has come; but good ideas that are poorly implemented are not much better than bad ideas.

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