Argument

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So You Want to Be a Special Envoy…

Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords ending the slaughter in Bosnia, is likely to be Obama's point man on the crisis in South Asia. Here's how he can ensure that his tough new mission ends in success.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Dear Ambassador Holbrooke:

Congratulations -- you are likely to be appointed U.S. special envoy to South Asia. Your new portfolio includes many of the world's most dangerous, intractable, and urgent threats: a messy war in Afghanistan, nuclear-armed neighbors in Pakistan and India, the home base for global terrorist networks, and well over a billion people facing nearly every combination of political and economic-development challenge you can imagine.

Your considerable talents as a seasoned diplomat and tough negotiator will be essential as you confront these challenges, but not in the manner many people expect. The problems of South Asia are not especially amenable to U.S. shuttle diplomacy. Yes, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan could all use a little encouragement in resolving their long-standing territorial disputes. But no amount of U.S. browbeating or inducement will overcome regional intransigence on issues such as Kashmir or the Durand Line. History suggests that greater U.S. involvement might instead backfire, alienating our partners in New Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul without jarring loose meaningful new compromises. When push comes to shove, all of these states care more about their own regional goals than we do, and they know it.

Dear Ambassador Holbrooke:

Congratulations — you are likely to be appointed U.S. special envoy to South Asia. Your new portfolio includes many of the world’s most dangerous, intractable, and urgent threats: a messy war in Afghanistan, nuclear-armed neighbors in Pakistan and India, the home base for global terrorist networks, and well over a billion people facing nearly every combination of political and economic-development challenge you can imagine.

Your considerable talents as a seasoned diplomat and tough negotiator will be essential as you confront these challenges, but not in the manner many people expect. The problems of South Asia are not especially amenable to U.S. shuttle diplomacy. Yes, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan could all use a little encouragement in resolving their long-standing territorial disputes. But no amount of U.S. browbeating or inducement will overcome regional intransigence on issues such as Kashmir or the Durand Line. History suggests that greater U.S. involvement might instead backfire, alienating our partners in New Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul without jarring loose meaningful new compromises. When push comes to shove, all of these states care more about their own regional goals than we do, and they know it.

Better to tread lightly through South Asia’s graveyard of conflict mediators and instead focus your energies where the United States’ efforts have so far been most deficient: the formulation and management of its own unified, comprehensive strategy for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. Rooting out al Qaeda from Pakistan’s rugged frontier, defeating the Taliban insurgency, assuring the security of nuclear arsenals, and improving local state capacity to secure civilians from Mumbai to Lahore to Kandahar — these are all challenges for which management, coordination, and effective programming of massive (and hopefully growing) U.S. resources are more vital than even the most skillful bilateral or multilateral diplomacy.

Nearly everyone agrees that Washington’s national security institutions need an overhaul to improve coordination between various civilian, military, and intelligence agencies. But in the midst of two wars and an economic crisis, now is not the time for a new administration to undertake reforms across the board. Your negotiating skills will be necessary to force disparate parts of the U.S. government to follow a single set of marching orders.

U.S. policies in Afghanistan have for too long been bureaucratically distinct from our efforts in Pakistan, even though the Taliban and other terrorists pay little heed to international borders. Four different U.S. military commands (EUCOM, PACOM, SOCOM, and CENTCOM) now play significant roles in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. Add NATO and the United Nations to Afghanistan; then stir in the toxic mix of turf battles between the State Department, USAID, the CIA, the Pentagon, and a range of other U.S. agencies; and you start to get a flavor for the coordination problems we face. That’s even before you start dealing with the U.S. Congress, nongovernmental organizations, and private contractors.

Under these conditions, you will need unambiguous authority from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to forge a policy consensus among potential allies (or steamroll opposition from adversaries). You will need to win expanded resources from Congress in order to build institutional structures and hire personnel appropriate for sustaining large, complex, and long-term operations in South Asia. And to the extent that you travel in the region, your diplomatic efforts will bear far more fruit if you are accompanied by a powerful interagency team capable of delivering quickly on promises or threats.

So beware. As special envoy, you may well hold your most critical negotiations without ever traveling outside the Beltway. You must first win political and bureaucratic victories here in order to set a successful course for U.S. efforts in South Asia.

Daniel Markey is a senior research professor of international relations and academic director of the global policy program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His website: www.danielmarkey.org.

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