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.