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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.