US scaling back Afghanistan embassy at crucial moment in peace talks

Peace deal could reduce number of troops

By Kylie Atwood, CNN
CNN Video

(CNN) - The Trump administration is in the midst of carrying out a dramatic scaling back of the US embassy in Afghanistan, with the goal of cutting half of the embassy's personnel by the end of September, according to five sources familiar with the matter.

The diplomatic draw down comes as the US is hopeful that a peace deal will be reached with the Taliban that would pave the way to reduce the number of US troops in the country from approximately 14,000 to between 8,000 and 9,000 in the coming months, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations.

The goal of the troop reduction had been relayed to the Afghan government by Gen. Scott Miller, the head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and US Special Eepresentative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.

As part of the diplomatic scale back, the State Department is sending home diplomats from Kabul without replacements, cutting back on security personnel, closing some facilities and cancelling proposals to build additional structures like new apartments for embassy personnel.

This is part of the Trump administration's push to "end the war in Afghanistan," a State Department spokesperson said. While the focus has been on reducing troops, the number of people supporting the US embassy in Kabul had dramatically grown in recent years so the administration saw an opportunity to cut numbers there as well, sources explained.

As America's longest war in Afghanistan has dragged on for nearly 18 years, and especially after the Benghazi attack on two US facilities, the number of staff at the Kabul embassy -- the largest and one of the most dangerous US embassies -- has "ballooned," according to officials familiar with the situation.

"It is a place where Pompeo could get points with Trump, so he moved on the opportunity," said a former US State Department official. "He also got some buy in from the State Department to do it."

A sensitive moment

The scaling back of the embassy comes at a sensitive moment. Khalilzad, the main US negotiator, has been meeting with Taliban leaders in Doha for months to seek commitments towards peace in Afghanistan. He has come under fire for keeping the Afghan government in the dark, but this week as he headed to Doha for further talks, he predicted success.

"In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on," Khalilizad wrote in a tweet on Wednesday.

However, on a trip to Afghanistan last month, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford stuck to the notion any drawdown of troops will continue to be conditions based on the ground and not related to or dependent on political events, according to sources familiar with the visit. But there remains an awareness that Khalilizad is discussing the possible troop draw down with the Taliban, which could trigger quick changes.

On Monday, just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that President Donald Trump wants a reduction in American troop levels in Afghanistan before the 2020 election, the US military announced that two US service members had been killed in Kandahar.

Trump has repeatedly voiced his desire to bring an end to the US presence in the 18-year conflict. This week Pompeo gave a glimpse of the pressure he is under when it comes to accomplishing that goal when he said a reduction of forces is "would be job-enhancing."

Trump also recently stirred outrage by suggesting that he could bring a swift end to the war by obliterating the nation.

"I have plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be over in literally in 10 days and I don't want to do that -- I don't want to go that route," the President said last week. "We're like policemen. We're not fighting a war. If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win it in a week. I just don't want to kill 10 million people."

Implementing the draw down

The State Department has been conducting an internal review of their diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan, but it is now focusing on implementing the draw down.

They did not provide exact figures on the drawdown but acknowledged that it is happening.

"Mission Kabul has long been our largest mission in the world, more than double the size of any other U.S. diplomatic mission. Even under the plan based on this review, Embassy Kabul would remain one of our largest diplomatic missions in the world, with a presence calibrated to achieve our goals," said a State Department spokesperson. They added that goal of the posture review has the goal is set on making the US "diplomatic presence and assistance levels more sustainable for the long term."

This process to drive down the numbers at the embassy -- which include security and diplomatic personnel -- is ongoing and has been stretched out over a number of months.

Congress has been briefed on the plans to scale back the embassy, congressional aides say. But there are still major changes that are waiting to be officially cleared by Congress through congressional notification.

The cuts have been fueled by not backfilling jobs when people leave the embassy to rotate to new assignments. Most of these happen in the summer. Given that the process can happen somewhat organically by simply not sending in new personnel, diplomatic security at the State Department has not received executive orders to draw down in large numbers, according to a source familiar with the execute orders.

The State Department also pointed out that the majority of staff reductions are to contractor positions as they look to consolidate.

Mixed views on scaling back

While some experts and former State Department officials who served at the embassy warn there are risks associated with a scaling back, they don't all completely oppose the drawdown.

"The Embassy in Kabul had grown fairly large over the past decade, particularly as the number of violent incidents spiked in Kabul and it became necessary to increase security to ensure that diplomats could conduct routine business," says Annie Pforzheimer, a former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Kabul last year and now a senior non-resident associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I can understand some kind of reduction, but I would be concerned if a drawdown impeded our diplomats' ability to observe local events and interact with Afghans. We should not cut costs if it means we lose these vital connections."

Ambassador John Bass, who has been at the embassy for almost two years, is helping with the effort to scale back, sources say.

The State Department says the cuts are not part of a slash and burn strategy.

"The plan is not a 'haircut' and the reductions are not applied evenly across sections. Rather, the changes we are enacting take into account the importance of preserving capabilities to achieve our top goals -- peace and reconciliation, state stability, and moving the Afghans toward greater self-reliance," said a State Department spokesperson.

Some argue that cutting the size of the embassy could in fact increase its effectiveness.

"If you have cut aid programs and also have almost no field access without military protection, there is no reason to keep people some sort of strange political symbol. If you don't tie the personnel to function you lose focus on the real mission," explains Anthony Cordesman who was once a director of intelligence assessment at the Defense Department and is now at CSIS. "Very often in the past, the personnel numbers did not get readjusted as a program amended or was cut."

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that America's involvement in the war in Afghanistan has lasted nearly 18 years.

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