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Olsen to be next U.S. ambassador to Pakistan

Olsen to be next U.S. ambassador to Pakistan

President Barack Obama intends to nominate Ambassador Richard Olsen to be the next U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, three sources with direct knowledge of the pending appointment told The Cable.

Olsen, a senior member of the foreign service, has been serving as the coordinating director for development and economic affairs at U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, since June 2011. If confirmed, he will replace Ambassador Cameron Munter, who announced in May that he would step down from his post after only 18 months on the job. Munter, who presided over the Islamabad embassy during perhaps the worst period in U.S.-Pakistan relations in over a decade, resigned of his own accord and will retire from the foreign service and join the private sector, these sources said.

Before going to Kabul, Olsen was U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2008-2011. He previously served abroad in Mexico, Uganda, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iraq, and as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. mission to the NATO.  His Washington assignments included stints at the State Department Operations Center, NATO desk, the Office of Israel and Palestinian affairs, and the Office of Iraqi Affairs.

Pakistan watchers and experts saw the choice as a reasonable one and generally said Olsen was a competent and safe choice, but that he faces an uphill battle in moving the relationship forward if and when he gets to Islamabad.

“It will help that Olsen understands some aspects of the region. But Kabul is a different place from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, as he will discover rapidly,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. “Pakistan is at once more complex and confounding.”

Nawaz said that Olsen’s success will depend largely on whether he is given power and influence in the interagency policy process. Munter was reportedly overruled several times when he engaged other administration departments on sensitive issues, such as the use of drone strikes or whether the United States should have apologized for killing 24 Pakistan soldiers last November. As the top U.S. representative in Pakistan, Olsen would also be forced to focus on the U.S. military’s pursuit of the Haqqani network and the ratcheting up of the U.S. drone program, both unpopular policies in Pakistan.

“Olsen’s biggest challenge will be dealing with a Washington that does not have a clear center of gravity in terms of decisions on relations with Pakistan. That was the biggest obstacle faced by Cameron Munter, who impressed many Pakistanis with his zeal and energy but did not get the support he needed from home,” Nawaz said.

Some regional experts think Olsen is being set up for failure because he will never be able to resolve the fundamental disputes between the various parts of the U.S. policy bureaucracy over Pakistan policy. The military and the intelligence community are set to ratchet up their kinetic activities inside Pakistan in advance of the U.S. handover of Afghan security control in 2014, a plan that runs in contrast to the State Department’s focus on improving government to government relations and raising the image of the U.S. there.

“The best person in the world will not succeed with a defective policy, which is what we have; more accurately, our policy towards Pakistan is fragmented among several entities,” said Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Will Olsen be accepting or influencing decisions of other agencies, some of which seem to be running their own policy towards Pakistan?”

Administration and congressional sources also confirm that Ambassador James Cunningham is set to be named to succeed Ryan Crocker as the U.S. envoy in Kabul. Crocker’s health continues to deteriorate and he is expected to return to the U.S. soon.

In other ambassador news, the White House announced Tuesday that the president intends to nominate Dawn Liberi to be ambassador to Burundi, Stephen Mull to be ambassador to Poland, and Walter North to be ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Republic of Vanuatu.

There’s still no word on who will be chosen to replace Ambassador Jim Jeffrey in Iraq, following the withdrawal of former National Security Council staffer Brett McGurk last month. There is some speculation but no hard evidence that former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is in the running.