U.S. Delays Afghan Outpost



Associated Press

Suicide car bombings, like this one in Kabul on May 2, are forcing a reassessment of U.S. plans to put a consulate in northern Afghanistan

KABUL—U.S. plans to open a diplomatic outpost in northern Afghanistan have been put on hold after security experts raised serious safety concerns about the compound and the general deterioration of the security situation in the region.

American officials had planned to convert a historic hotel in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif into a consulate, as part of a plan to expand the U.S. diplomatic presence around the country. According to a recent internal assessment by security officials and diplomats, however, the site was determined inherently vulnerable: It was close to tall buildings that could be used to launch an attack, and it was uncertain whether it could withstand a car-bomb attack, a typical insurgent tactic.

The security reassessment, first reported by the Washington Post, said officials had fixed a "very tight timeline" to open the facility as a symbol of U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

U.S. diplomats announced plans to refurbish the facility in 2009, at a time when Mazar-e-Sharif was considered relatively secure. Then-U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said the State Department was "prepared to invest many millions of dollars" in the renovation.

But the security situation in northern Afghanistan, once considered one of the more peaceful areas of the country, has since become precarious. Last spring, protests over the burning of a Quran by a U.S. pastor led to the storming of a United Nations compound in Mazar-e-Sharif, with mobs killing seven foreigners.

Recent events elsewhere in the country have underscored the threats to U.S. and international facilities. In September, insurgents launched an attack on the U.S. embassy and coalition installations in Kabul, using an unfinished building as a firing position. And last month, Afghanistan saw a coordinated wave of Taliban attacks, including a dramatic firefight in the capital's diplomatic quarter, with insurgents once again using unfinished tall buildings.

The U.S. currently has one consulate operating outside Kabul, in the western city of Herat. During February riots stemming from the burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base, a mob of protesters tried to storm that consulate. The assault was thwarted only after Afghan security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing some of them.

It is unclear whether the U.S. will select an alternative location for the facility in Mazar-e-Sharif.

According to the security reassessment, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker acknowledged the potential vulnerability of the facility after paying a visit in late 2011. Gavin Sundwall, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Kabul, said the State Department declined to comment on leaked documents as a matter of policy.

"Consistent with our regular procedures worldwide, we constantly evaluate the security situation throughout Afghanistan and change our assessments, plans and practices as required to protect our employees and facilities," he said. "The security situation has evolved in Afghanistan, and any decisions we make are driven by our responsibility to ensure the safety of our personnel."

The disclosure comes as another coalition soldier was killed by an Afghan army soldier, the latest in a string of incidents in which Afghan troops have turned their weapons on their allies.

According to a coalition news release, an individual in an Afghan National Army uniform opened fire on coalition troops in southern Afghanistan Sunday, killing one service member. The incident brought to at least 19 the number of coalition forces killed by their Afghan comrades in arms this year.

The attacker was killed when coalition troops returned fire.

The coalition didn't disclose the exact location of the incident, pending notification of the family of the slain service member. A spokesman for the governor of southern Helmand province office said the incident occurred in Marjah district, a former insurgent stronghold where virtually all the forces are U.S. Marines.

Separately, Taliban fighters occupied a building in Sharana, the capital of eastern Paktika province Sunday night, taking an unknown number of hostages and firing on surrounding government buildings, a Western military official said. Late Sunday night local time, some 20 insurgents were spotted attacking the Afghan intelligence agency's compound in the city, the official said.

The security situation in Afghanistan continues to draw concern in Washington. Discussing a recent visit to Afghanistan Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), who heads the Senate intelligence committee, said she believed the Taliban was gaining, rather than losing, momentum.

Afghan President Hamid "Karzai believes that the Taliban will not come back," she said. "I'm not so sure."

A U.S. official, in response, said, "There's no question that the capabilities, intent and motivation of the Taliban has been a pressing issue for the U.S. government for years. There will be Taliban elements willing to continue their campaign for the foreseeable future."

—Ziaulhaq Sultani, Maria Abi-Habib and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.

Write to Nathan Hodge at [email protected]

A version of this article appeared May 7, 2012, on page A8 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S. Delays Afghan Outpost.