KABUL — American diplomats here expressed guarded hopes Tuesday for the upcoming transition, in which U.S. advisers will withdraw from virtually all aspects of governing Afghanistan — whether planning budgets, promoting legal crops or prosecuting crimes — and leave them in Afghan hands.
The group of officials, speaking on background to Western journalists, described plans to shift from a wartime “stabilization” assistance program to what several called a “normal” program of development aid, beginning next month with seven areas of the country that have been chosen for an early transition from Western to Afghan security control.
The diplomats, all specialists involved in areas from agriculture to justice, said they had come to respect many of the Afghans they had trained and worked with, but they also acknowledged that there had been disappointments and frustrations, including political interference, corruption and what one official called a “narrow skill layer” of trainable people in this impoverished post-war nation.
They said the country’s uncertain security situation could have a major impact on where, whether and how fast the transition can be carried out, and that in some areas, it could take much longer than originally planned. One said that by 2014, when the transition is supposed to be complete, “we will still be fighting at least a low-level insurgency.”
The officials also said that many Afghans are worried and ambivalent about the prospect of Western aid and advisers starting to pull back while insurgents are still active, the economy’s heavy dependence on foreign largesse and the Afghan state’s weakness. “In their hearts, they want us to leave, but in their heads, they want us to stay,” said one official.
In a parallel to the much larger planned reduction of U.S. troops here, about 400 American advisers and experts in 80 locations across the country will begin pulling out in the coming months, and their scattered field posts will be replaced by four regional hubs or consulates, the officials said.
The amount of American financial aid is expected to decline sharply, and the way it is spent will also change. Until now, the officials said, two-thirds of U.S. assistance has been channeled through contractors or nonprofits. As a result of the transition, it will shift in large measure to Afghan government budgets, raising fresh concerns about corruption that is already widespread throughout the bureaucracy.
“We are under no illusions. We know how difficult this is. There has been a lot of heartburn,” said one official who works on aid monitoring.
Another official said there was still “massive corruption” related to the drug trade, and that efforts to persuade farmers not to grow opium poppies had been “a very, very slow process." Another official who works with law enforcement said his team had trained capable and dedicated investigators, but that “the prosecution breaks down sometimes,” a reference to high-level interference.
Although they did not say so expressly, the major concern among the officials was clearly that the Afghan state may not have the institutional capacity or political framework to remain viable once Americans and other foreign backers significantly reduce their role. If that happens, one official said, “we could all end up back here again, paying a much bigger price.”