State Department to Boost Presence in Afghan Regional Capitals

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The State Department will significantly expand its presence in regional capitals in western and northern Afghanistan in coming months, part of the Obama administration's plans for a "surge" in civilians going to the country.

"As part of our expanding efforts in Afghanistan," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a cable sent Saturday to all Foreign Service officers, "the Department intends to create 14 additional FS positions in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif."

The cable called the jobs "priority" assignments and "new opportunities" for diplomats about to bid on new postings for later this year.

President Obama's senior national security officials have proposed a new overall strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he is expected to approve this week. It includes sending hundreds of U.S. civilian officials to Afghanistan, increasing the size of the embassy and its outposts by about 50 percent -- to about 900 personnel.

Obama has authorized the deployment of 17,000 additional troops, with most headed to southern Afghanistan, where British, Canadian and U.S. forces are battling a resurgent Taliban.

The proportion of U.S. civilian officials to military forces in the country is small, compared with the ratios for other NATO members with troops in Afghanistan. Each of the U.S.-led provincial reconstruction teams outside Kabul, the capital, includes 50 to 100 military and Defense Department contractors, but none has more than a half-dozen civilian officials, even though the teams are charged with traditionally civilian tasks in fields such as development, agriculture and education.

The U.S. civilian presence in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where NATO troops are under Swedish command, has numbered one or two. The American presence in the western province of Herat, under Italian command, is similarly minuscule.

"We want to stand a little on our own" in "these critical places," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

An initial group of seven officials will be sent to each of the cities, including public diplomacy, security, management and administrative personnel, as well as "reporting" officials. A State Department official said that Clinton had "personally approved" establishing the offices.

Still to be determined is whether the provincial reconstruction team offices will be redesignated, either as consulates, which require congressional approval, or as regional embassy offices.

The new posts, and other expanded civilian operations, will probably require expanded security. Xe, the private security company formerly known as Blackwater, holds the State Department contract for diplomatic security in Afghanistan.

The senior U.S. official said the department does not anticipate in Afghanistan a repetition of the difficulties encountered by the Bush administration in finding volunteers to go to Iraq. In addition to Foreign Service officers, the expanded civilian presence in Afghanistan will include recruits from other government departments and "full-time, temporary" government hires for special development tasks.

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