Unforeseen security problems have hastened the civilian drawdown, officials said. Last August, a USAID officer, Ragaei Abdelfattah, was killed in a suicide attack in eastern Konar province. In April, a U.S. diplomat, Anne Smedinghoff, was slain in the capital of southeastern Zabul province. Last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, also led to more risk-averse security policies for American civilian employees overseas.
After April’s attack in Zabul, the State Department temporarily barred its employees stationed at bases outside Kabul from leaving them. Worried about “insider attacks,” it also ordered that diplomats could not travel in convoys that included Afghan soldiers.
“We joked that the embassy would prefer that we never see Afghans,” said one U.S. official.
The military’s consolidation has been lightning fast, forcing the State Department to remove employees from districts where they were once deemed critical. Some former U.S. officials in Afghanistan argue that they were withdrawn during an important stage of their missions.
“There are still local tribal conflicts that go all the way to the president’s office. . . . The police in some districts are still literally raping and pillaging,” said a third U.S. official, who was formerly based in southern Afghanistan. “But the embassy’s mentality is: ‘It’s the end. Wrap it up. Get out.’ ”
After the civilian drawdown in Iraq, the State Department looked for a private-sector solution to monitoring programs there that would be too dangerous for government employees to visit.
In 2009, USAID issued a $14 million, three-year contract to the Washington-based QED Group to provide such oversight. But an inspector general report last year found that “the program did not operate as intended and, therefore, the contract did not significantly improve program management and oversight at USAID/Iraq.”
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has charged in recent reports that millions of dollars have been wasted on U.S. development efforts, including agriculture projects, hospitals that lack the staffing and operating budget to function, and a large utility where contractors were paid for work not completed.
“As U.S. and coalition forces withdraw, it will become steadily more difficult for both the implementing and oversight agencies to monitor projects,” John F. Sopko, the special inspector general, told Congress in April.
USAID officials said some of SIGAR’s allegations, including claims that projects were badly monitored, were products of poor research by the inspector general.
“I can’t say that’s not true, but it’s not universally true,” said Larry Sampler, USAID’s acting assistant to the administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, responding to Sopko’s critique. “We do get out” to projects, he said.
Sampler acknowledged, however, that the lack of security, particularly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, has “forced us to look for alternative mechanisms for monitoring and oversight.”
Some critics, including U.S. government officials, have questioned the effectiveness of the “civilian surge,” which began in 2010.They argue that it often failed to improve Afghan governance and effectively track development spending. U.S. diplomats forced to travel with convoys of military personnel, critics say, were often unable to get a realistic sense of progress or public opinion because the troops’ presence was so disruptive.
But with $15 billion in USAID funds invested in Afghanistan, no one doubts the importance of oversight and sustainable programs.
“Some of what we had hoped to achieve in the districts and provinces hasn’t proved out as regularly or as quickly as we wanted,” Cunningham said. “But a lot of good work has been done in trying to prepare for this, and trying to move away from projects that are heavy on oversight and [include] big commitments of personnel resources.”