US Might be Seeking to Reduce Diplomatic Footprint in Afghanistan and Iraq

US President Donald Trump’s administration is considering reducing its diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan as part of a broader effort to extricate the United States from its costly and deadly 18-year conflict, U.S. officials told Foreign Policy.

The State Department is preparing to cut by half the number of U.S. diplomats posted in Kabul in 2020, according to three U.S. officials familiar with internal deliberations. It may also advance plans to reduce the number of diplomats posted to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq as Washington seeks to reduce its war footing in the Middle East and South Asia to prepare for what it calls an era of “great-power competition” with China and Russia.

The deliberations coincide with U.S. peace talks with the Taliban and assessments on how to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.

Once obscure diplomatic outposts, the U.S. embassies in Kabul and Baghdad ballooned into the largest and costliest diplomatic missions in the world following U.S. military interventions. Diplomats comprise only a portion of embassy personnel in both Kabul and Baghdad, which includes officials from other federal agencies, contractors, and security staff.

In February, NPR reported on a leaked internal document from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that called the outpost too big and urged a “comprehensive review” of its size, though the document did not outline the scale of the proposed cuts.

The embassies in Kabul and Baghdad make up a “disproportionate size” of State’s budget and personnel compared with embassies in other parts of the world. Some diplomats believe it’s time to shift those resources elsewhere.

“We are regularly hearing from Africa that we are outnumbered by the Chinese diplomats working on economic or other issues 4 or 5 to 1,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to Foreign Policy.
“We cannot continue to concentrate all that money in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

It’s a matter of “where can we best deploy our very limited resources to avoid losing further ground to major competitors who are rising at a speed that we can barely comprehend,” the official said.

The plans under consideration envision eliminating only 20 to 30 diplomatic positions this year from Iraq, where the U.S. diplomatic mission includes the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil. Up to 30 to 50 percent of the mission to Iraq could be cut in 2020, two of the U.S. officials said, providing details of plans that have been in the works for months.

The embassy in Baghdad has around 16,000 staff, 2,000 of whom are diplomats, according to a New York Times report in February that outlined some of the plans.

The State Department does not publicly discuss precise numbers of personnel at embassies or consulates for security reasons, according to a State Department spokesperson.

“The Department regularly reviews our presence at our overseas missions to reflect changing circumstances and our policy goals. While we do not discuss personnel numbers, our embassies engage in regular reviews to ensure that they are appropriately staffed,” the spokesperson said in an email response to questions on proposed cuts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We are not abandoning Iraq and U.S. Embassy Baghdad and our Consulate in Erbil will continue vigorous engagement in Iraq,” the spokesperson said, adding that the embassy “just completed an exercise to ensure adequate and appropriate staffing to carry out our mission in Iraq.”

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