The South Asia Channel

Exeunt Pakistan experts, pursued by bear

With apologies to Shakespeare for appropriating his memorable line from A Winter’s Tale, I worry about the state of Pakistan expertise that is fading from the scene in key Washington policy making positions. It must be that time of the political season: the third year of a President’s first term, when exhaustion sets in and ...

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images
Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

With apologies to Shakespeare for appropriating his memorable line from A Winter’s Tale, I worry about the state of Pakistan expertise that is fading from the scene in key Washington policy making positions. It must be that time of the political season: the third year of a President’s first term, when exhaustion sets in and weary but smart specialists head off into civilian jobs before the big exodus that follows the end of the first term. But, at a time when the United States’ relations with Pakistan are being tested severely, who will fill these positions and fast, and how many of the new recruits will be able to hit the ground running? And who will establish the personal relationships in country, without which not much can be achieved in consultations with Pakistani counterparts?

At the White House, economics expert David Lipton, who knows Pakistan extremely well and knows official and business partners in the country better than most U.S. interlocutors, reportedly is heading back to the International Monetary Fund. There, his Pakistan experience may come into play immediately this summer, as the economy in that country nose dives in the wake of parliamentary opposition to a budget that attempted to introduce reform by stealth, under a single budgetary resolution. National Security Council Senior Director John Tien has departed into civilian ranks. Director Shamila Chaudhary is heading to the think tank world and the private sector. After two years at the NSC, Eric Lebson is heading to Australia. That leaves Lt. Gen. (retired) Doug Lute, who stayed on beyond the Bush years, holding down the fort — but for how long? At the State Department, the old team the late Amb. Richard Holbrooke assembled has lost Vali Nasr and soon may lose Alex Evans, both of whom know Pakistan’s politics intimately. The Vice President has lost his South Asia expert Herro Mustafa to the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. At the Department of Defense, the chief negotiator and persuader for the United States with the Pakistan military, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, is departing soon, leaving big boots to fill. And in the country itself, the Office of the Defense Representative in Pakistan will be losing both its head Vice Adm. Mike Lefever and his deputy, Brig. Gen. Mike Nagata.  Meanwhile, aid coordinator Robin Raphel is coming back to the States.

One assumes there must be someone planning all these moves and coming up with a new team that will work with Pakistan to retrieve a relationship that has come under tremendous stress in recent weeks. It is clear that the timing of these departures is unfortunate in the wake of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and related events. Perhaps a new team is standing by. Perhaps not. It is not clear who is coordinating Pakistan policy today in Washington, and even less clear who is willing to take leadership on Pakistan in Washington and in South Asia. But what is certain is that difficult days lie ahead for an already turbulent situation.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.

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