Afghans are expected to settle on a new president by this summer and the U.S. and the new government in Kabul will begin to forge a relationship in the postwar period. But at this critical juncture there will be a diplomatic brain drain that will undermine U.S. policy goals there, say officials in and out of the U.S. government.
With President Hamid Karzai leaving office after a stormy relationship with Washington for more than 12 years, many current and former U.S. officials see a unique opportunity to redefine the relationship with Kabul.
But that may be difficult. By summer, after a possible runoff election chooses Karzai's successor, most of the mid-level and senior U.S. civilians with deep Afghanistan experience who would have the knowledge to help foster strong relations with the new government will be long gone. And, officials familiar with the matter said, they will be replaced by diplomats expected to have far less experience.
That means the U.S. embassy will be in a weaker position to help the new government fight corruption, prevent an economic slump, or influence the new Kabul government on matters pertaining to any U.S. military force that may remain after this year, say current and former U.S. officials.
Each of the three presidential contenders have indicated they will sign a bilateral security agreement that will help to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond this year regardless of the State Department's staffing decisions in Kabul. It is the broader implications of having a less experienced diplomatic staff in Kabul when the fledgling government is facing so many other critical decisions that is more worrying, one U.S. official concerned about the matter said.
The State Department would not provide the number of U.S. foreign service officers serving in Afghanistan. But a U.S. official said there are about 250 to 300 foreign service officers assigned to the U.S. embassy in Kabul and the bulk of them are departing this summer.
One office inside the embassy typifies the drain of institutional knowledge: most of the roughly 20 foreign service officers who work in the embassy's Political and Economic Section, the office of seasoned veterans who work most directly with the Afghan government, are all leaving this summer as part of a routine turnover that occurs each summer in Kabul.
At the same time, U.S. Ambassador Jim Cunningham is expected to be leaving within the next four or five months after serving two years as the chief of mission. The confirmation of his replacement will be in the hands of the Senate, where Republican members have a penchant for holding up Obama administration nominations and a chance that the job will remain vacant for some months is a distinct possibility.
All of this will make it harder for Washington to have any influence with the new government in Kabul, say current and former officials with knowledge of the situation.
Ronald Neumann, the former ambassador to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007, said it's not yet entirely clear just what kind of a relationship Washington will want to have with the new government in Afghanistan and how it will want to manage it. But removing most of the experienced diplomats at the same time, especially those at senior levels, is shortsighted if you assume the U.S. wants a positive relationship with Kabul.
"It's good if you can keep somebody there who knows the people and can work with them," he said. "If you have a Washington that doesn't understand what the issues are and a new government with somebody who doesn't know the ground, then you would have a problem," Neumann said.
A U.S. official put it more bluntly. Removing seasoned diplomats and replacing them with less experienced foreign service officers at such a critical time in Washington's intimate history with Kabul for the last 13 years makes no sense.
"Amateur hour could well damage our relationship with a fragile new government," said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity while speaking about sensitive diplomatic matters. "Kabul, in the summer of 2014, is unique and best handled by a team that knows the situation and players."
The drain of institutional knowledge from Kabul this summer stems largely from the State Department's staffing policy when it comes to Afghanistan. Unlike other posts for which two- and three-year tours are typical, State usually keeps diplomats in Afghanistan for just one year before pulling them out. While the U.S. military has also been criticized for short tours that make it harder to cultivate and maintain relationships with the military's Afghan counterparts, it's the State Department that has for years come under the most criticism for one-year rotations in part because diplomats are considered to have greater influence over broader swaths of the Kabul government.
A State Department official said in an email that while one-year tours in Afghanistan will be in effect and many diplomats will leave Kabul this summer, the Department will ensure there aren't gaps created by rotating out the current spate of diplomats.
"Whenever the government of Afghanistan's transfer of political authority is complete, we will be prepared to fully engage the new government on the range of bilateral issues," the official said. "Given the size of the mission and the individual sections, Embassy Kabul maintains a robust level of staffing throughout the transfer season."
But current and former officials don't believe that's true, and they say that State has a reputation for adhering blindly to its bureaucratic culture despite the circumstances on the ground that might dictate otherwise. State should re-think one-year tours, at least for now, says another former ambassador.
"My view is that with the transition, State has an excellent opportunity to move to 24 month tours with some accommodations to the local conditions," said Karl Eikenberry, the retired Army three-star general who also served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. Eikenberry, like others, argues that the State Department should change its policy in Afghanistan to extend the normal one-year tours to two-year tours to maintain continuity and diplomatic relationships. "The civilian and military missions have both been impacted by the one-year tour of duties."
Many believe the shorter tours of U.S. government officials working in Afghanistan has generally contributed to the prickly relationship between Washington and Kabul. Karzai hosted numerous U.S. officials over the years, from various secretaries of state to defense secretaries, military commanders, and two presidents, but he never had what many in Washington term a "swim buddy," or a trusted partner with whom he was able to develop a long-term rapport. While President George W. Bush did speak with Karzai frequently, President Barack Obama has been far more indifferent to the Afghan leader and the two speak far less often.