KABUL, Afghanistan — Last September blasts rocked the American consulate compound in Herat. The attack, which claimed the lives of three Afghan guards and an interpreter, not only shattered walls and windows, but also conjured up nightmare reminders of the 2012 attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three others in Libya.
Now, as the NATO military presence in Afghanistan dwindles, experiences in Libya as well as Iraq hang over State Department security experts as they grapple with how to secure their personnel and facilities and prevent a similar tragedy.
Ever since U.S. troops and their Afghan allies toppled the Taliban regime more than a decade ago, military forces, usually led by Americans, have governed the international mission in Afghanistan.
As those troops depart, however, the United States is planning a transition to a smaller advisory mission and a civilian-led diplomatic and aid operation in the country, which puts greater responsibility on the State Department just as the international security resources upon which diplomats often relied are leaving.
Transition teams have worked with the Department of Defense and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan to ensure that a full diplomatic mission can continue, said Robert Hilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. “We have also made adjustments to our programs in order to make them more sustainable moving forward and to adjust to the new dynamics which will come from the transition,” he told Stars and Stripes.
In a report issued in December but released publicly this week, the State Department’s in-house inspector general said America’s lead diplomatic organization “has generally engaged in effective planning” but that continued uncertainty over the future of U.S. troops in the country is complicating efforts to make specific plans.
American generals want to keep as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan past the end of the year to advise and assist the nascent Afghan security forces who are now taking on the Taliban. But President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign an agreement that would keep American troops in Afghanistan.
“Key decisions cannot be timely made until the U.S. military presence post-2014 is clarified,” State’s inspector general concluded. “Without timely key decisions, the embassy will potentially be unable to fully prepare for the transition from a military-led to civilian-led mission in Afghanistan.”
The breakdown of similar negotiations in Iraq led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops two years ago.
U.S. State Department officials have said that unlike in Iraq, where the department tried to use a large and controversial private security force for protection, diplomatic missions and civilian aid workers in Afghanistan have relied on military forces for security.
The inspector general’s report noted that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul appears to have learned from other mistakes in Iraq, such as not having a centralized, unified transition program.
The foreign civilian presence in the country is expected to shrink along with the military, and the remaining staff will likely operate from compounds like the one in Herat, or military bases if an agreement to leave some U.S. forces can be worked out.
“Without U.S. military support, embassy operations may need to be significantly curtailed at diplomatic platforms or the embassy will need to expend substantially greater resources in an effort to address an increased security risk,” the IG report stated.
Fred Burton, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the Diplomatic Security Service who now works as vice president of intelligence for the security firm Stratfor, said having facilities and personnel overextended could weaken security and provide more targets.
“The only way to reduce your exposure to the terror threat is to reduce your physical presence,” he said.
Security at U.S. diplomatic missions around the world became a public focus in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, dead.
In early August last year, the State Department ordered more than 20 diplomatic posts in over a dozen countries closed for at least a day after an alert warned of the possibility that al-Qaida or related groups in the Arabian Peninsula could launch an attack in the Middle East or North Africa.
Burton noted that there are “more high-threat posts than there ever have been” for diplomats around the globe. He said his main concern is the ability of the State Department to operate long-term if security remains iffy or even deteriorates in Afghanistan and other hotspots.
“There is simply no end in sight,” he said. “As evidenced by Benghazi, when you look at high-threat conditions and expanding expeditionary diplomatic posts you have to question how many high-threat tours can you do before there’s an adverse effect on your people. Folks don’t understand that when you reduce the military footprint in a given country, someone has to pick up that slack.”