In Afghanistan, troop drawdown hems in US diplomats who oversee development

By KEVIN SIEFF | The Washington Post | Published: July 30, 2013

KABUL — Since its troops swept into Afghanistan 12 years ago, the United States has dispatched hundreds of State Department employees to keep track of the massive American investment in developing the country. The days of such oversight are now ending.

Nearly all U.S. diplomats are confined to Kabul because of the shrinking footprint of the American military, which once protected and transported civilian officials. That leaves diplomats here with a predicament: How do they oversee billions of dollars in projects, most of which are far from the capital, when they can't leave Kabul?

Beyond simply monitoring projects, the diplomats — often in small teams living in far-flung districts — have tried to nurture local Afghan governments in hopes of providing stability after U.S. troops withdraw from areas where the Taliban is active. Some U.S. officials say they were plucked from their regional posts as they were identifying important problems with government corruption and abuse.

The State Department is planning some unusual ways to continue monitoring U.S.-funded projects. It will hire private contractors, who will submit photos with time and location stamps to prove that they visited the sites. Firms in Kabul might call far-off provinces by phone to ask villagers about education, nutrition or confidence in the government. Contractors might assess the progress of dams or roads by flying overhead and capturing aerial images.

American officials will meet their Afghan counterparts during the local officials' trips to Kabul. In some cases, the U.S. government may accept that its new posture has precluded any possibility of oversight.

"We have built a lot of stuff, and we do worry whether or not we, and the Afghans, can keep it together," said a U.S. official who, like several others interviewed, was not authorized to speak on the record to the media. "The goal is to maintain our core activities or programs, and that's what we have to concentrate on."

In recent years, a "civilian surge" sharply increased the number of U.S. officials deployed to Afghanistan by the State Department, USAID and other agencies. They advised the national and local governments and tried to better monitor development projects, which have a history of multimillion-dollar waste, according to U.S. government investigators.

The current retrenchment is a necessary part of the war's endgame, U.S. officials say, but it presents a challenge for a Foreign Service accustomed to performing much of its own on-the-ground oversight in countries with major American aid programs.

Some officials expressed confidence in the new process, saying Afghans are largely ready to manage U.S.-funded programs along with their own institutions. Projects that cannot be monitored may be shuttered, they said.

"It shouldn't matter whether we are there physically," said another U.S. official. "What should matter is that they see a future for their country, and it's a future that is led by Afghans."

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, State Department employees have relied heavily on the U.S. military for security. Civilian officials often have lived at Army or Marine bases, meeting regularly with local power brokers and inspecting the way aid dollars were being spent. When diplomats have taken day trips from Kabul, they typically have traveled on military aircraft, another dwindling resource here.

In March 2012, there were 423 civilian officials spread across 83 installations in Afghanistan. By January 2014, there will be fewer than 99 people in 11 locations, officials said.

"We can't maintain that footprint, as much as we would like to, without the support from the military that goes with it," said U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham. "There's no way we could do that on our own."

Unforeseen security problems have hastened the civilian drawdown, officials said. Last August, a USAID officer, Ragaei Abdelfattah, was killed in a suicide attack in eastern Konar province. In April, a U.S. diplomat, Anne Smedinghoff, was slain in the capital of southeastern Zabul province. Last year's deadly attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, also led to more risk-averse security policies for American civilian employees overseas.

After April's attack in Zabul, the State Department temporarily barred its employees stationed at bases outside Kabul from leaving them. Worried about "insider attacks," it also ordered that diplomats could not travel in convoys that included Afghan soldiers.

"We joked that the embassy would prefer that we never see Afghans," said one U.S. official.

The military's consolidation has been lightning fast, forcing the State Department to remove employees from districts where they were once deemed critical. Some former U.S. officials in Afghanistan argue that they were withdrawn during an important stage of their missions.

"There are still local tribal conflicts that go all the way to the president's office. . . . The police in some districts are still literally raping and pillaging," said a third U.S. official, who was formerly based in southern Afghanistan. "But the embassy's mentality is: 'It's the end. Wrap it up. Get out.' "

After the civilian drawdown in Iraq, the State Department looked for a private-sector solution to monitoring programs there that would be too dangerous for government employees to visit.

In 2009, USAID issued a $14 million, three-year contract to the Washington-based QED Group to provide such oversight. But an inspector general report last year found that "the program did not operate as intended and, therefore, the contract did not significantly improve program management and oversight at USAID/Iraq."

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has charged in recent reports that millions of dollars have been wasted on U.S. development efforts, including agriculture projects, hospitals that lack the staffing and operating budget to function, and a large utility where contractors were paid for work not completed.

"As U.S. and coalition forces withdraw, it will become steadily more difficult for both the implementing and oversight agencies to monitor projects," John Sopko, the special inspector general, told Congress in April.

USAID officials said some of SIGAR's allegations, including claims that projects were badly monitored, were products of poor research by the inspector general.

"I can't say that's not true, but it's not universally true," said Larry Sampler, USAID's acting assistant to the administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, responding to Sopko's critique. "We do get out" to projects, he said.

Sampler acknowledged, however, that the lack of security, particularly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, has "forced us to look for alternative mechanisms for monitoring and oversight."

Some critics, including U.S. government officials, have questioned the effectiveness of the "civilian surge," which began in 2010.They argue that it often failed to improve Afghan governance and effectively track development spending. U.S. diplomats forced to travel with convoys of military personnel, critics say, were often unable to get a realistic sense of progress or public opinion because the troops' presence was so disruptive.

But with $15 billion in USAID funds invested in Afghanistan, no one doubts the importance of oversight and sustainable programs.

"Some of what we had hoped to achieve in the districts and provinces hasn't proved out as regularly or as quickly as we wanted," Cunningham said. "But a lot of good work has been done in trying to prepare for this, and trying to move away from projects that are heavy on oversight and [include] big commitments of personnel resources."