U.S. abandons consulate site in Afghanistan, citing security risks

After signing a 10-year lease and spending more than $80 million on a site envisioned as the United States’ diplomatic hub in northern Afghanistan, American officials say they have abandoned their plans, deeming the location for the proposed compound too dangerous.

Eager to raise an American flag and open a consulate in a bustling downtown district of the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, officials in 2009 sought waivers to stringent State Department building rules and overlooked significant security problems at the site, documents show. The problems included relying on local building techniques that made the compound vulnerable to a car bombing, according to an assessment by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that was obtained by The Washington Post.

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The decision to give up on the site is the clearest sign to date that, as the U.S.-led military coalition starts to draw down troops amid mounting security concerns, American diplomats are being forced to reassess how to safely keep a viable presence in Afghanistan. The plan for the Mazar-e Sharif consulate, as laid out in a previously undisclosed diplomatic memorandum, is a cautionary tale of wishful thinking, poor planning and the type of stark choices the U.S. government will have to make in coming years as it tries to wind down its role in the war.

In March 2009, Richard C. Holbrooke, who had recently been appointed President Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, lobbied for the establishment of a consulate in Mazar-e Sharif within 60 days, according to the memo. The city was deemed relatively safe at the time, far removed from Taliban strongholds of the south. A consulate just a short walk from Mazar-e Sharif’s Blue Mosque, one of the country’s most sacred religious sites, was seen as a way to reassure members of the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek minorities that dominate the north that the United States was committed to Afghanistan for the long haul.

“At the time, [Holbrooke] pushed hard to identify property and stand up an interim consulate, on a very tight timeline, to signal our commitment to the Afghan people,” according to the January memo by Martin Kelly, the acting management counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Holbrooke died in 2010 of complications from heart surgery.

An embassy spokesman declined to respond to questions about the assessment of the Mazar-e Sharif compound, saying that as a policy matter officials do not discuss leaked documents.

Trouble from the start

Had the Mazar-e Sharif consulate opened this year as planned, it would have been the second of four the U.S. government intends to set up. The United States has a consulate in the western Afghan city of Herat and is assessing options for the three other cities where it intends to keep a permanent diplomatic presence: Kandahar in the south, Jalalabad in the east and Mazar-e Sharif.

The embassy memo says the facility was far from ideal from the start. The compound, which housed a hotel when the Americans took it on, shared a wall with local shopkeepers. The space between the outer perimeter wall and buildings inside — a distance known as “setback” in war zone construction — was not up to U.S. diplomatic standards set by the State Department’s Overseas Security Policy Board. The complex was surrounded by several tall buildings from which an attack could easily be launched.

“The Department nonetheless granted exceptions to standards to move forward quickly, establish an interim presence and raise the flag,” Kelly wrote.

Among the corners cut in the interest of expediency, the memo says, was failing to assess how well the facility could withstand a car bombing, a task normally carried out by the department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. After Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker arrived in Kabul in July, officials asked the bureau to conduct a blast assessment.

“We believe the survey will show that a [car bomb] would cause catastrophic failure of the building in light of the local construction techniques and materials,” Kelly wrote.

The structure’s outer perimeter wall is composed of sun-dried bricks made from mud, straw and manure, and the contractor used untreated timber for the roof, the memo says.

A chain of security incidents has prevented U.S. officials from moving into the facility, which was scheduled to be ready for occupancy last month. Most notable was the April 2011 attack on the United Nations compound, which is close to the would-be U.S. consulate. A mob enraged by the burning of Korans by a fringe American pastor stormed into the compound after Friday prayers and killed three European U.N. workers and four of their Nepalese guards.

Susceptible to attack

There were other reasons for concern. In August, according to the memo, Afghan security forces uncovered a “sophisticated surveillance operation against the consulate, including information about plans to breach the consulate site.” In December, four people were killed in a bombing at the Blue Mosque, less than an eighth of a mile from the prospective consulate.

The attacks and threats, Kelly wrote, “are symptomatic of a real, measurable uptick in the threat stream.” The hours-long attack in September on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from a nearby building under construction renewed concerns about the vulnerabilities of the Mazar-e Sharif site.

“The entire compound is surrounded by buildings with overwatch and there is almost no space on the compound that cannot be watched, or fired upon, from an elevated position outside the compound,” Kelly wrote.

Responding effectively to an emergency at the consulate would be next to impossible, Kelly noted, because the facility does not have space for a Black Hawk helicopter to land. It would take a military emergency response team 11 / 2 to 2 hours to reach the site “under good conditions,” he said.

In December, embassy officials began exploring alternative short-term sites for their diplomatic staff in northern Afghanistan. A Western diplomat familiar with the situation said the United States has sought, so far in vain, to persuade the German and Swedish governments to sublet it. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, said European diplomats have found the prospect laughable.

 
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