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Security fears threaten US future in Afghanistan

Wednesday - 2/12/2014, 4:44am  ET

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2014, file photo, an Afghan man prepares tea as he waits for customers in Kabul, Afghanistan. With millions of dollars in foreign aid flooding into the country, many Afghans still live in poverty. Uncertainty over how many U.S. troops might remain in Afghanistan beyond this year has trickled down to American diplomats and aid workers whose efforts over the last decade to develop the still mostly primitive country faces a drawdown of its own because of security fears. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

LARA JAKES
AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Warily watching to see how many U.S. troops might remain in Afghanistan next year, American diplomats and aid workers are facing a drawdown of their own as security threats and dwindling resources limit their 12-year push to develop the mostly primitive nation.

Nearly $100 billion has been spent since 2001 on U.S. projects to better Afghan lives after generations of war and isolation, including boosting security forces, educating young girls and launching mobile phone technology.

But the State Department's ability to continue aid programs, or start new ones, hinges largely on Afghanistan's security -- and whether officials can travel to project sites to make sure the money is being spent wisely. A long-delayed decision on whether as many as 10,000 American forces will remain in Afghanistan after the war ends this year will determine how deeply the aid will be cut.

It's an all-too-familiar pattern of anxiety for diplomats who saw years of development projects in Iraq wither away after U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 because of reduced resources and increased security threats.

"It was not ... particularly pleasant to have to take a very large program down to a very small program in a very short period of time," said Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, who oversaw a gutting of State Department aid to Iraqi police forces two years ago. Violence in Iraq has surged ever since.

Brownfield said he is already anticipating fewer personnel and less money for local legal programs in Afghanistan, including fighting drug traffic and helping prosecutions and prison systems. But he's waiting to see how many security forces might remain before he can predict how deep the cuts will be.

"My intent is to have established a policy and a strategy that can adjust to these realities without having to do the savage surgery that I was required to do in Iraq in 2012," Brownfield said.

Congress already is seeking to cut all foreign assistance to Afghanistan by half, he said.

"There's a credibility question," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who until last summer chaired a panel on south and central Asia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We have plenty of reasons to make sure when the military engagement ends that we really maintain both a diplomatic presence and strategy."

However, he said, "it's very hard for most taxpayers to support" keeping a large military presence in Afghanistan.

Negotiations over whether foreign military forces should remain in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends in December have snarled over Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a security agreement with the United States. Without such an agreement, allies have said NATO forces will not remain.

On Tuesday, U.S. military officials said the number of American troops in Afghanistan could drop to as low as 20,000 by mid-summer, and would mainly focus on specific skills needed for training and counterterrorism missions if U.S. forces do stay beyond 2014. It generally takes about 10 months to shut down a massive military base, but officials said the Pentagon is prepared to do it in a much shorter -- although far more expensive -- timeline. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because they were not authorized to be named while discussing the plans.

So far, the U.S. has allocated $96 billion to build up Afghanistan -- more than half of it to train and equip the nation's estimated 344,000 security forces. Continued support for the Afghan troops, which are expected to grow by another 8,000, will be a key predictor to the country's stability after 2014.

"If American troops aren't there, the administration's ability to sustain funding for the (Afghan national security forces) gets a lot more problematic," said Stephen Biddle, a national security and defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And if that goes away, the whole show collapses. It's very hard to imagine road projects, wells, schools, clinics -- the kinds of things we've been sinking into money into -- surviving in that kind of environment."

This week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced a $300 million package of aid to bolster Afghan agriculture projects and provide administrative degree programs at universities. It also will build on Afghan trade and tax programs to ultimately help Kabul gain accession to the World Trade Organization.

Larry Sampler, who heads USAID operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in an interview that if the new programs are unable to be properly monitored "we'll pull the plug." But he said USAID has years of experience working in "pretty dodgy places," and described a number of ways to make sure the money is properly spent even if American officials are unable to personally visit project sites due to security threats.

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