The Obama administration has ordered significant cutbacks in initial plans for a robust U.S. civilian presence in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops withdraw two years from now, according to U.S. officials.
Learning from Iraq, where postwar ambitions proved unsustainable, the White House and top State Department officials are confronting whether the United States needs — and can protect — a large diplomatic compound in Kabul, four consulates around the country and other civilian outposts to oversee aid projects and monitor Afghanistan’s political pulse.
Planners were recently told to reduce personnel proposals by at least 20 percent, a senior administration official said. Projects once considered crucial are being divided into lists of those considered sustainable and those that will not be continued.
“As we saw in the Iraq exercise, you need to be very tough on the numbers going in,” the official said. “We need to have enough civilians to achieve the goals we’ve laid out,” within “a finite amount of money we have to spend.”
Officials declined to identify specific projects that might end. But the inevitable decrease in eyes and ears across Afghanistan could threaten a range of long-term U.S. investments and priorities, such as women’s rights, education, health care and infrastructure.
The challenge of balancing the American civilian presence of what are now about 1,000 officials and thousands of contractors with reasonable resources goes beyond pocketbook and personnel issues, according to several senior officials, who discussed the planning on condition of anonymity because it is at an early stage.
On one side of the simmering internal debate are fiscal constraints, diminished hopes for progress and national weariness with the Afghanistan effort. On the other side are formal U.S. pledges of development support, moral and political commitments to a country where nearly 2,200 U.S. troops have died and $590 billion has been spent, and fears Afghanistan could again become a terrorist haven.
Looming over the debate is the determination to avoid a repeat of the September attack on a poorly defended U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Last month, the administration began what is likely to be a year-long negotiation with the Afghan government over how many troops the U.S. military will leave behind when combat ends in 2014. A key sticking point is whether remaining troops will be subject to Afghan law, which doomed similar talks with Iraq last year.
Even if the negotiations succeed and a sizable American force remains, the U.S. military is certain to curtail or stop the security and other services it provides U.S. government civilians in Afghanistan.
“How do you do security? How do you do mobility? These are expensive propositions when State has to do it all itself,” Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan until last summer, said in an interview.
Those concerns were echoed by Sarah Chayes, who has spent years in Afghanistan and was an adviser to the U.S. military command there. “There is a significant risk that the conditions in Afghanistan are going to be too hostile for an influx of civilians to be able to function,” she said.
The mega-embassy problem
The mega-embassy concept was born in Iraq as the State Department tried to hold its own with a U.S. military whose counterinsurgency strategy included development and governance tasks once reserved for diplomats and civilians. When the military withdrew, the diplomats tried to continue the noncombat work without the military’s massive budget or the protection provided by up to 150,000 troops.
As the State Department assumed many of the military’s tasks, including training Iraq’s national police, the diplomatic mission grew to nearly 20 support personnel for each official, including more than 6,000 contract security guards. With a $6 billion budget, the department set up its own domestic Iraqi air service and staffed three hospital facilities. The rolls of civilians and contractors topped 20,000.
Today, the world’s biggest diplomatic mission employs about 13,000 government and contract workers, but the goal is to reach fewer than 8,000, officials said. The police program, originally planned with 350 U.S. trainers at 22 sites, has been reduced to about 40 trainers at two sites. Plans to build seven consulates have shrunk to two.
As hard as Iraq has been, Afghanistan poses far more difficult security and logistical problems. There is little optimism that the war against the Taliban will be over before U.S. combat troops leave or that Afghan security forces will prove an able substitute.