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State Department to Scrap Afghanistan-Pakistan Envoy

The administration aims to streamline diplomatic outreach to South Asia just as it ramps up the military presence there.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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In a surprising move, the State Department reportedly is getting rid of its special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Several reports on Friday indicate the move came without warning, even to rank-and-file diplomats at the State Department. But even if the efforts to eliminate the office are ham-fisted, it could be a smart move, helping eliminate redundancies at State that hamper effective coordination on South and Central Asia.

Former President Barack Obama began to slowly phase out the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) as he drew down U.S. military presence in the region. But it was designed to be a slow and deliberate process. This appears to be anything but.

“We’ve long planned for SRAP to go away, but the intention was for the policy to be transferred responsibly,” one U.S. diplomat told Politico. “This happened on less than 24 hours notice.”

One State Department source speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the State Department was mulling the move, but said it hadn’t yet made a final decision. The Wall Street Journal first reported State will eliminate the office on Friday. The State Department press office didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.

The wisdom or folly of getting rid of the office, first led by Richard Holbrooke, is hotly debated by former officials and experts.

Several former senior U.S. officials and military commanders told Foreign Policy that it could marginalize the administration’s attention on the region just as it considers bulking up its troop presence in Afghanistan, where the United States and its NATO allies have been fighting for 16 years.

David Barno, former senior American commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, called it a “bad move,” saying it takes away a “single focal point” in the State Department that looks at Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan as a whole. It also undercuts State’s clout in Afghanistan.

“The military now is in effect back in the driver’s seat in dealing with Afghanistan,” he said. “These aren’t just military problems, they certainly don’t have just military solutions…I don’t think this  is going to help us solve the problem,” he said.

James Cunningham, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014, said having an SRAP made his job a lot easier when he was Washington’s man in Kabul, and it didn’t appear to crowd out other bureaus.

“It was helpful, there’s no doubt about that,” he told FP.

But other regional experts say it could be a good move, helping streamline policies between offices in the State Department that have overlapping and redundant responsibilities.

“I don’t know why people are spun up about this, this is the right move,” said Alyssa Ayres, former deputy assistant secretary of state for south Asia. She’d suggested as much three years ago.

She told Foreign Policy the SRAP office “created a parallel” structure with the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, which also oversees Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also hollowed the bureau out as veteran diplomats were transferred to the new SRAP office.

“It was like creating a big doughnut hole in the middle of a bureau,” she said.

But getting rid of SRAP would work better if the South and Central Asian Bureau were firing on all cylinders. That bureau’s leadership ranks remain empty, five months into the Trump administration, in large part because the president hasn’t yet appointed an assistant secretary of state to lead the office. The acting assistant secretary of State, William Todd, was moved on June 12 to a key human resources and Foreign Service management post, leaving the Bureau without even interim leadership.

Another advantage to keeping the special envoy position: It would free up the bureau to focus on other issues. “Afghanistan is not the totality of our interests in South Asia,” Cunningham said.

One former Af-Pak envoy said the move is the type of reshuffling common to new administrations.

“Each administration, based on personalities and prominence of issues, bends or adjusts the permanent structure of its agencies to its needs,” said James Dobbins, SRAP from 2013 to 2014 and now at RAND Corporation.

The SRAP post was first created in the early days of former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009 to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single issue: The porous border provided refuge for terrorists and sally points for insurgents battling U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan.

Dobbins said dissolving the SRAP could be counterbalanced if they appoint strong diplomats in other posts to carry on more weight. “A lot depends on who they make the new assistant secretary,” he said.

The move comes as Tillerson aims to reform the State Department and as the administration pushes for about a one-third cut to America’s diplomacy and foreign aid budget.

This article was updated Friday, June 23, at 4:36 p.m. to include comments from former senior U.S. officials. 

Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer