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Dinner with Secretary Clinton: Afghanistan on the menu

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host selected South Asia hands at a dinner tonight (Tuesday) on the topic of Afghanistan at the Secretary’s official dining room on the eighth floor of Foggy Bottom, The Cable has learned. About 10 people were invited to the dinner, said one person informed about it (but not going), ...

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WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 02: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks after she was sworn in during a ceremonial swearing-in at the State Department February 2, 2009 in Washington, DC. Clinton is the 67th Secretary of State of the United States of America. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host selected South Asia hands at a dinner tonight (Tuesday) on the topic of Afghanistan at the Secretary's official dining room on the eighth floor of Foggy Bottom, The Cable has learned. About 10 people were invited to the dinner, said one person informed about it (but not going), on condition of anonymity. "Some widely known experts, others less well-known but more likely to have jobs in the new team," the source said.

Clinton's Afghan dinner would appear to signal that the secretary of state intends to be a key player in setting the Obama administration's policy toward Afghanistan -- along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and national security advisor James L. Jones -- and it follows the appointment of former Amb. Richard Holbrooke as the State Department's South Asia envoy.

Sources told The Cable that among those invited are J. Alexander Thier, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Jonah Blank, a South Asia advisor with the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Neither would comment. Both advised the Obama campaign on South Asia issues. Blank recently accompanied Vice President Joseph Biden on a trip to the region (Biden, incidentally, had breakfast with Clinton this morning, according to his official schedule). Thier is the editor of a recent USIP report, "The Future of Afghanistan," and previously served as a member of an Afghanistan study group led by national security advisor Jones.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host selected South Asia hands at a dinner tonight (Tuesday) on the topic of Afghanistan at the Secretary’s official dining room on the eighth floor of Foggy Bottom, The Cable has learned. About 10 people were invited to the dinner, said one person informed about it (but not going), on condition of anonymity. “Some widely known experts, others less well-known but more likely to have jobs in the new team,” the source said.

Clinton’s Afghan dinner would appear to signal that the secretary of state intends to be a key player in setting the Obama administration’s policy toward Afghanistan — along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and national security advisor James L. Jones — and it follows the appointment of former Amb. Richard Holbrooke as the State Department’s South Asia envoy.

Sources told The Cable that among those invited are J. Alexander Thier, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Jonah Blank, a South Asia advisor with the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Neither would comment. Both advised the Obama campaign on South Asia issues. Blank recently accompanied Vice President Joseph Biden on a trip to the region (Biden, incidentally, had breakfast with Clinton this morning, according to his official schedule). Thier is the editor of a recent USIP report, “The Future of Afghanistan,” and previously served as a member of an Afghanistan study group led by national security advisor Jones.

The dinner comes as Holbrooke has been working this week out of the transition’s offices on the State Department’s first floor, preparing for his mission and interviewing possible staff. The Cable has previously reported that Vali Nasr, the Fletcher professor and Mideast and South Asia expert, has agreed to serve as a senior advisor to Holbrooke. New York University professor Barnett Rubin declined to comment on what some sources indicate, that he may serve as an informal advisor to Holbrooke. Nor would he say if he’s going to tonight’s dinner.

It’s still unclear who will serve as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, and who will take deputy roles. The outgoing deputy assistant secretary for India, Evan Feigenbaum, is slated to join the Council on Foreign Relations next month. Two career Foreign Service officers, Nancy Powell and Bob Blake, along with the current U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Ann Patterson, are discussed as possible assistant secretaries, along with some of those invited to tonight’s dinner, as possible appointees for assistant secretary or DAS slots. Former Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth, who also advised the Obama campaign on South Asia, is also mentioned as being in the mix for a South Asia position, possibly as U.S. ambassador to India. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The New York Times recently reported that ret. Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has been tapped as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

At the NSC, the Afghanistan portfolio seems slated to remain for now under the direction of Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, George W. Bush‘s holdover “war czar,” whose staff of seconded CIA, DoD, and other federal agency employees are mostly staying in place for now. A senior director on South Asia may be appointed at a later point. Bruce Riedel, the veteran CIA and NSC official who served as the senior lead on the team advising the Obama campaign on South Asia, has previously told The Cable he expects to stay at the Brookings Institution. But it’s possible he could play an advisory role, sources say.

Meantime, observers note similarities between the recommendations in a new Afghanistan report (pdf) by counterinsurgency and security experts at the Center for a New American Security, and Politico‘s description today of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s recommendation to President Obama to scale back U.S. ambitions in Afghanistan. Under the revised aims reportedly proposed by the classified JCS report, and by the unclassified CNAS briefing paper, the reduced objectives would be to prevent the country from being a safe haven for al Qaeda and the Taliban and to ensure regional stability, rather than try to build a centralized, democratic state.

One of the co-authors of the CNAS report, ret. Lt. Col. John Nagl, said he had no plans to go to dinner tonight with Secretary Clinton. Rather, he said, he would be teaching about Afghanistan at Georgetown.

Correction: Douglas Lute is an actively serving lieutenant general, and not, as previously reported, a retired general. 

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Laura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.

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