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.