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Top State Department official on the ground in Pakistan

Top State Department official on the ground in Pakistan

The Obama administration’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman is on the ground in Pakistan today for a previously scheduled visit.  But while he was planning to discuss the endgame of the Afghan war with Pakistani government officials, that mission was thrown into chaos by the revelation that Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan – apparently without the Pakistani government’s knowledge.

Grossman, who took over as SRAP following the untimely death of Richard Holbrooke, left Washington on April 27 for stops in New Delhi, Kabul, Islamabad, and Riyadh. In Pakistan, he was to work with Pakistani officials to iron out details for the next round of the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue scheduled to be held in Islamabad at the end of May, and to attend a trilateral meeting on Afghanistan with his Pakistani and Afghan counterparts.

More broadly, Grossman was tasked with setting U.S.-Pakistan political relations back on track after months of problems between the two countries. The tension almost reached a boil earlier this spring, as the two governments wrangled over CIA contractor Raymond Davis’s fate after he shot and killed two alleged Pakistani intelligence agents in Lahore, Pakistan.

A senior State Department official told The Cable that Grossman has been meeting senior Pakistani officials over the past two days, including President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and Inter-Services Intelligence Chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha. The trilateral meeting will go forward on Tuesday, as planned. Grossman echoed the public statements of other senior administration officials in his meetings, the official said, and wasn’t there to talk about the bin Laden operation. He also met with parliamentarians and representatives from civil society and local media.

There is little doubt that the Obama administration is still committed to patching up the relationship with Pakistan. White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, in a press conference today, said that the United States "look[s] forward to continue to work with our Pakistani colleagues, because they are as much, if not more, on the front lines of the battle against terrorism."

However, the White House evidently did not trust the Pakistanis enough to include them in the operation — Brennan confirmed that the United States did not contact Pakistani government officials until after U.S. forces had exited Pakistani airspace.

"Clearly the Pakistanis are surprised as anybody here, so they are scrambling to figure out how they are going to respond diplomatically to us," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Grossman is probably scrambling too. But at least his bosses all knew about the operation, so it might not take him as long to catch up."

In fact, it’s highly likely that Grossman was out of the loop on the mission to kill bin Laden. Such operations are kept on a need-to-know basis and administration officials have said that knowledge of this operation was kept to a very small circle of senior officials.

But another State Department official told The Cable that Grossman’s coincidental trip to Pakistan was a lucky break, because he is able to help manage the fallout of the operation by interacting directly with Pakistan’s leaders.

"By being there right now, it helps pull the strings together on the political side," the official said. "Hopefully it’s not fallout, hopefully it’s the beginning of a process to pull together and move forward."

Following the stunning revelation that bin Laden was living near Islamabad in Abbottabad, a town with a huge Pakistani military presence, Grossman’s effort to repair U.S.-Pakistan relations faces a whole new set of problems.

"This really strikes at the myth of the strength of the Pakistani military and intelligence services. Either they are incompetent or they are actively complicit. Either way is no good so there is no win," Markey said. "Given how really angry they’ve been with us in recent months, the idea they would see this as an important opportunity to mend fences just isn’t likely."

Regardless, Grossman’s mission now is to prevent or at least minimize the damage to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship that could come following the bin Laden killing. Pakistani officials, especially the military and intelligence officials who dropped the ball on bin Laden, could make things worse in their attempts to deflect the blame.

The U.S.-Pakistani relationship wasn’t even supposed to be the main focus of Grossman’s job. The State Department official said that Grossman’s role had been to advance a strategy that would lead to a solution to the Afghan war, in accordance with Clinton’s Feb. 18 speech at the Asia Society.

"Ambassador Grossman and the rest of his interagency team will marshal the full range of our policy resources to support responsible, Afghan-led reconciliation that brings the conflict to a peaceful conclusion, and to actively engage with states in the region and the international community to advance that process," Clinton said.

But the differences between the United States and Pakistan are central to the difficulty of reaching a diplomatic solution to the Afghan war. Pakistan wants to move to reconciliation talks as soon as possible; the Obama administration wants to keep fighting the Taliban in order to set the stage for future talks.

Reports that Gilani told Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month to abandon his alliance with the United States brought the sharp differences between Washington and Islamabad on Afghanistan to light.

The Obama administration is aware of the risk further fracturing the relationship with Pakistan, and has been trying to praise Pakistani government officials.

"We thank all of our partners around the world, including Pakistan, who have helped us put unprecedented pressure on al Qaeda and its leadership for the murders of so many individuals," Clinton said Monday. "And we remain committed to supporting the people and government of Pakistan as they defend their own democracy against extremism."

But some experts see a more limited role for Grossman and the SRAP team going forward.

"The vision of the SRAP, the portfolio, has all been narrowed," said Markey. "Holbrooke had a wide mandate and very ambitious expectations. All of that has been reduced."

The reduced role of Grossman and SRAP leaves a coordination gap in the administration’s Pakistan strategy that is being filled by the military and the intelligence community, especially the counterterrorism agencies, Markey said.

"When you have a toolkit that has the CIA and the military as the largest tools, it’s hard not to see them run away with the show — and that’s how it’s been."