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U.S. Report Finds Kabul Embassy Stretched, Morale Challenged

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A U.S. government report has cast doubt on the future success of the civilian side of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, with diplomats stretched to the limit and morale challenged at the embassy in Kabul.

The State Department inspector general's office, in a report completed last month and posted on the department's website, listed 89 formal recommendations for the embassy as well as 42 "informal ones," from greater oversight of government spending to a more realistic workload for staff.

"Even with the able leadership of Kabul's senior officers, the best of intentions, and the most dedicated efforts, Embassy Kabul faces serious challenges in meeting the administration's deadline for "success" in Afghanistan," said the report.

It said the "unprecedented" scope of the civilian buildup -- from fewer than 300 diplomats last year to about 900 this year -- and the complexities of getting them in place constrained their ability to promote stability and good governance -- the goals of the mission.

"Morale at Embassy Kabul has been challenged by the stresses of an almost 100 percent personnel turnover, a massive civilian buildup at a frenetic pace, the redesign of development assistance programs, the continuing high volume of official visitors," the report said.

In Kabul, U.S. Embassy spokesman Caitlin Hayden did not disagree with the report's findings but said the actual inspection was completed several months ago and most of its recommendations were already being implemented.

"In general, the report is accurate in its assessments. Many of the findings and recommendations are similar to those found in reports about other embassies worldwide," she said in an e-mail response to Reuters.

Criticizes 'War Tourism'

The report said diplomats were overwhelmed, working 80 hours a week, often well into the early hours as Washington scheduled conference calls during the U.S. capital's work day rather than at convenient times for Kabul's time zone.

In addition, many staff were forced to give up their one-day off a week on Fridays because of a routine video conference call arranged then by Washington, a practice which should be changed, the report said.

It also criticized the steady stream of official U.S. visitors which taxed the same assets that would otherwise be used for counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts the visitors' wanted to evaluate.

"Some describe the incredible volume of visitors from all branches of the federal and even state governments as 'war tourism,'" the report said.

It also took aim at the embassy's oversight of contracts and grants, saying this was seriously inhibited by the shortage of qualified contract officers.

The U.S. government has sought to overhaul its public diplomacy efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the report said staffing levels were inadequate to deal with this.

The report said the complexity of running the giant embassy was mirrored outside its fortified walls, where the Afghan government's own capacity was also limited.

"There is tension among the U.S. government's lofty goals, the embassy's ability to advance them, and the capacity and commitment of elements of the Afghan Government to implement them," said the report.

The full report is on the State Department's website.