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Afghan presence remains uncertain

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 8:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has ordered significant cutbacks in initial plans for a robust U.S. civilian presence in Afghanistan after its combat troops withdraw two years from now, according to officials.

Learning from Iraq, where postwar ambitions proved unsustainable, the White House and top State Department officials are confronting whether the United States needs — and can protect — a large diplomatic compound in Kabul, four consulates around the country and other civilian outposts to oversee aid projects and monitor Afghanistan's political pulse.

Planners were recently told to reduce personnel proposals by at least 20 percent, a senior administration official said. Projects once considered crucial are being divided into lists of those considered sustainable and those that will not be continued.

“As we saw in the Iraq exercise, you need to be very tough on the numbers going in,” the official said. “We need to have enough civilians to achieve the goals we've laid out,” within “a finite amount of money we have to spend.”

Officials declined to specify specific projects that might end. But the inevitable decrease in eyes and ears across Afghanistan could threaten a range of long-term U.S. investments and priorities, such as women's rights, education, health care and infrastructure.

The challenge of balancing the American civilian presence of what are now about 1,000 officials and thousands of contractors with reasonable resources goes beyond pocketbook and personnel issues, according to several senior officials, who discussed the planning on condition of anonymity because it is at an early stage.

On one side of the simmering internal debate are fiscal constraints, diminished hopes for progress and national weariness with the Afghanistan effort. On the other side are formal U.S. pledges of development support, moral and political commitments to a country where nearly 2,200 U.S. troops have died and $590 billion has been spent, and fears Afghanistan could again become a terrorist haven.

Hanging over the debate is the determination to avoid a repeat of the September attack on a poorly defended U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

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