As the U.S. continues its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, plans for a robust civilian and diplomatic presence are threatened by budget and safety concerns (The Washington Post)

The Obama administration has ordered significant cutbacks in initial plans for a robust U.S. civilian presence in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops withdraw two years from now, according to U.S. officials.

Learning from Iraq, where postwar ambitions proved unsustainable, the White House and top State Department officials are confronting whether the United States needs — and can protect — a large diplomatic compound in Kabul, four consulates around the country and other civilian outposts to oversee aid projects and monitor Afghanistan’s political pulse.

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.

The mega-embassy problem

The mega-embassy concept was born in Iraq as the State Department tried to hold its own with a U.S. military whose counterinsurgency strategy included development and governance tasks once reserved for diplomats and civilians. When the military withdrew, the diplomats tried to continue the noncombat work without the military’s massive budget or the protection provided by up to 150,000 troops.

As the State Department assumed many of the military’s tasks, including training Iraq’s national police, the diplomatic mission grew to nearly 20 support personnel for each official, including more than 6,000 contract security guards. With a $6 billion budget, the department set up its own domestic Iraqi air service and staffed three hospital facilities. The rolls of civilians and contractors topped 20,000.

Today, the world’s biggest diplomatic mission employs about 13,000 government and contract workers, but the goal is to reach fewer than 8,000, officials said. The police program, originally planned with 350 U.S. trainers at 22 sites, has been reduced to about 40 trainers at two sites. Plans to build seven consulates have shrunk to two.

As hard as Iraq has been, Afghanistan poses far more difficult security and logistical problems. There is little optimism that the war against the Taliban will be over before U.S. combat troops leave or that Afghan security forces will prove an able substitute.

“The problem with Afghanistan is, it’s not going to look like success,” James F. Jeffrey, who until September was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview. “It’s still going to be backward and totally corrupt, with not enough government infrastructure and a huge burning insurgency. This is terribly complicated and hard stuff under the best of circumstances, and these are the worst.”

U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials outside Kabul are housed at military at bases large and small. They depend on the military to protect and transport them, and provide medical care. They consume imported food and water brought in massive military convoys.

The bases are disappearing, and plans for the Afghans to provide security leave many Americans nervous.

Where Iraq has been kept afloat by oil revenue, Afghanistan depends on handouts. International donors have promised a post-2014 annual supplement of $4 billion for Afghan security forces and an equal amount in development and economic assistance. More than half of the $8 billion will come from the United States.

U. S. Agency for International Development officials say that every development project started in recent years has been approved only if the Afghans can eventually sustain it without U.S. help.

“We want to have an appropriate [civilian] footprint,” the senior official said. “We just have to be smart about it.”

The official declined to specify a final number of civilians but said there had already been “lots of cutting” and it would be well below the current level.

Some worry that the zeal to cut may get out of hand.

“There’s a point at which it would be too small, a point at which the message to Afghans would be that we actually didn’t learn the lesson in 1989-90,” said a second senior official, referring to the abrupt withdrawal of support after U.S.-backed Afghan guerrilla forces ended a decade of Soviet occupation.

Left to its own devices, Afghanistan sank into a civil war that opened the door to the Taliban, who ruled much of the country, and hosted al-Qaeda, until U.S. forces helped overthrow them in 2001.

Preliminary plans

Firm decisions on civilian numbers and locations cannot be made “until we resolve exactly what the military follow-on numbers are going to be,” one official said. “That will determine . . . where we locate, what kind of security, medical and other support we might be able to get.”

At its headquarters in Kabul, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force is preparing recommendations for Obama on how fast to withdraw the 68,000 remaining U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan.

Plans for the follow-on military presence are being formulated in the Pentagon, where the largest of several preliminary options calls for about 10,000 troops, with several other NATO governments penciled in for several hundred each.

According to these preliminary plans, ISAF’s successor would be based in Kabul, officials said, with most U.S. training and counterterrorism troops probably stationed in Kandahar and at the air base at Bagram. Both locations are to be converted to Afghan ownership.

Smaller counterterrorism units of the Joint Special Operations Command would be positioned primarily in the eastern part of the country, where most of their activities take place.

Italy, in charge of the ISAF mission in Herat in western Afghanistan, would remain there to train Afghans. Germany would do the same in Mazar-e Sharif in the north. It is unclear what would happen at Camp Bastion, the British headquarters in Helmand province.

Officials say the NATO allies are waiting to see what sort of agreement is reached between the Americans and the Afghans, and how many U.S. troops will remain.

Although the Afghan government has agreed to a long-term foreign military presence in principle, negotiations over the size and terms have just begun. The main sticking point is likely to be the issue that led to the breakdown with Iraq — whether U.S. forces are immune from Afghan legal jurisdiction.

The size of the U.S. military will help determine the size of the civilian footprint. “If there’s no military medical capacity or medevac capability, then it’s going to be pretty pricey,” Crocker said. “That may mean downsizing. I hope it doesn’t mean eliminating any of the four posts” designated as U.S. consulates.

The fate of the consulates is a topic of debate between the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and planners in Washington. Crocker and others contend that the United States must be present in all four corners of Afghanistan.

Last June, the first consulate was opened in Herat, which is relatively peaceful. A location in Mazar-e Sharif was abandoned when it was determined to be insecure — after the State Department had signed a 10-year lease and spent $80 million.

For now, the other two facilities, in Kandahar and Jalalabad, remain on the drawing board.