As U.S. Troops Leave Afghanistan, Diplomats Are Left to Fill Uncertain Mission

WASHINGTON — It was once a sideshow to the American military in Afghanistan and later became one of the largest diplomatic missions in the world. Now, as the United States Embassy in Kabul transitions to its newest role, its future is tied to a fragile peace process, one that will withdraw American troops even as violence continues.

American diplomats in Kabul must tiptoe between two rival Afghan leaders — President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — who have each declared themselves the winner of national elections held last fall. The United States Embassy sees helping to resolve the political dispute as a core mission, but Afghan officials have soured on the State Department and its negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban, signed last month.

President Trump has yet to nominate a new ambassador to replace John R. Bass, who left the embassy in Kabul in January. Instead, the State Department appointed a skilled but retired place-holder, Ross Wilson, to serve as the embassy’s chargé d’affaires.

And disputes between the Afghan government and the Taliban over negotiating teams and the release of Taliban prisoners threaten to upend the peace process itself — the success or failure of which will determine the mission of the United States Embassy in Kabul for generations.

“I think everyone is concerned about where this is going,” said Christopher R. Hill, who was the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad when the Pentagon began withdrawing its troops there amid political chaos in Iraq — the same situation American diplomats in Kabul now face.

Mr. Hill said that without clear direction from Washington, American policy in Afghanistan “could be very painful and not terribly successful, at least not in the short or medium term.” As a result, “people will be questioning whether we knew what we were doing,” he said.

Much will depend on whether delayed negotiations between Afghanistan’s elected leaders and the Taliban will produce a power-sharing government that protects political and civil rights as outlined in the country’s Constitution, which took effect in 2004. (People familiar with the discussions said there were efforts underway to rewrite the Constitution, but it was unclear how or what would change.)

If the negotiations are successful, the United States Embassy in Kabul is expected to hew to the kind of a diplomatic role that is routine elsewhere in the world: providing and sustaining American assistance to the Afghan government and nurturing relations between Washington and Kabul.

But if not, and if the Taliban end up with widespread control, the United States would probably have little relationship with the government, said Daniel F. Feldman, who served as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Barack Obama.

If that happens, Mr. Feldman said, the embassy itself could wind up “just there to carry the flag of any ongoing U.S. commitment.”

Afghan officials, who were left out of preliminary peace talks between the Taliban and American negotiators, are similarly flummoxed about the embassy’s plans for the future, given the uncertainty of what the negotiations will yield.

One question is whether a military withdrawal would put the American Embassy in charge of security agreements with Afghanistan. “Then that is still something to be discussed, for both sides,” said Ambassador Roya Rahmani, the Afghan government’s top envoy to the United States.

“I cannot say how it will unroll at this point because it’s all up to be decided, depending on how the negotiations will happen,” she told reporters this month.

The U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, which spanned more than a year, were led by a special American envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, in what the State Department called an “all-hands-on-deck effort” that included embassy officials. Embassies usually do not negotiate broader strategy agreements, such as the Afghanistan peace framework, even if the results have direct effects on the policies that diplomats are expected to carry out.

Mr. Khalilzad said on Twitter on Sunday that initial talks had begun over Skype between the Taliban and the Afghan government to release the Taliban prisoners. Future priorities for the embassy in Kabul are expected to include working toward peace and reconciliation, state stability and helping the Afghan government become more self-reliant, said a senior State Department official who spoke about the diplomatic plans only on condition of anonymity.

Currently, there are more than 500 American diplomats and other civilian government staffers working under the embassy’s authority in Afghanistan, as well as up to a few thousand contactors and foreign employees. (State Department officials would not disclose a more precise number of employees at the embassy in Kabul.)

But staffing cuts are coming: A recent State Department review recommended reducing the number of contractors at the embassy. Many of them were pulled back to Kabul with the closing of consulates in Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, and at least two other diplomatic outposts around Afghanistan, as the United States military began to withdraw.

It was not clear how many positions were being cut, although the senior State Department official said a vast majority were security and other support contractors.

Staffing levels at the embassy in Kabul have vastly fluctuated over the years. In 2012, during what was known as the civilian surge, more than 1,330 American officials were working for the embassy, according to the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. That was up from 340 Americans in 2008, the auditors reported.

The American Embassy in Kabul has for years relied on the U.S. military for everything from transportation to food services. And if history is an indicator, the embassy’s fate will largely depend on how troops are pulled back.

Ten years ago, the American Embassy in Baghdad was responsible for leading the American effort in Iraq as the war began to wind down. Under American protocol, an ambassador outranks a military commander in a foreign country. But the Pentagon had pumped billions of dollars into Iraq and secured a relative, if tenuous, stability by subduing Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shiite death squads that had each terrorized the country.

“There was quite a tradition of the military running this,” said Mr. Hill, the United States ambassador in Baghdad at the time. “It proved kind of difficult to move the center of gravity over to the embassy.”

Over the next year, as all U.S. combat troops left Iraq, military and embassy officials sought to work in “lock step” — not only with Iraqi officials but also to uniformly outline the American mission’s needs and challenges in Iraq to Washington, said retired Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who was the Pentagon’s chief spokesman in Baghdad in 2011.

He said much of the initial Iraqi reluctance to turn to the American embassy “had a lot to do with resources being brought to bear,” given that the Defense Department had been able to provide more staff, equipment, money and other resources than the State Department could in Iraq.

“They could just not leverage what we had started,” Mr. Buchanan said in an interview.

Mr. Buchanan later served as a deputy commander for all American troops in Afghanistan, from 2015 to 2016. He said government security forces there “are going to continue to need help for some time.”

Annie Pforzheimer, a retired career diplomat, was the deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Kabul the year after Mr. Buchanan had left. In the long run, she said, it would be better for Afghans to have their own government forces secure their country, albeit with international oversight.

But she also expressed some concern about security constraints on the embassy in Kabul that already prevent American diplomats from regularly leaving the compound and meeting with locals.

Security restrictions imposed by the State Department have been especially acute in Afghanistan, where a decade ago provincial reconstruction teams of American diplomats worked with local governments across the country to fight corruption, provide services like education and health care, bolster the economy and promote women and other vulnerable populations.

Those efforts continue to be run out of the embassy in Kabul, Ms. Pforzheimer said, but they now face dwindling money even as American officials work to make sure financial assistance to Afghans is not being misused.

The embassy’s budget could be cut by at least $145 million next year, according to the State Department’s spending plan, reducing some operations and consolidating others. Direct aid to Afghans is also declining, from $1 billion in the 2017 fiscal year to just under $500 million in 2019.

“The embassy needs to be resourced well enough to not only keep monitoring our past assistance but also to help new Afghan peace mechanisms — especially those which protect women,” Ms. Pforzheimer said.

Otherwise, she said, “we unnecessarily risk the important gains our military presence helped bring about.”

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