The Trump administration on Friday moved to eliminate the State Department unit devoted to policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan — transferring its duties to a regional bureau whose leadership ranks have been decimated.
The development came with less than a day’s notice amid Trump administration’s ongoing lengthy review of policy toward both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It has deeply rattled U.S. officials, according to The Washington Post and Politico, who say the shift leaves unclear who is responsible for handling diplomacy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan at a time when President Donald Trump is considering ramping up the U.S. military presence in that region.
The AfPak unit was the brainchild of Richard C. Holbrooke, a blustery and talented diplomat who was one of several special envoys named by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Obama administration.
Holbrooke had argued that the U.S. relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan needed an overhaul and that the porous border with Afghanistan and the presence of U.S. forces there necessitated a cohesive strategy for both countries.
Holbrooke set about recruiting “the best minds he could find from inside and outside of government, including academics, development experts, diplomats and specialists from other federal agencies,” wrote Hillary Clinton in her State Department memoir “Hard Choices.”
Holbrooke died suddenly in December 2010, after suffering a torn aorta during a meeting with Clinton in her State Department office.
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According to Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Center, with main emphasis on Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh, “among other things, the demise of SRAP office at State Department makes a US reconciliation strategy in Afghanistan all the more unlikely.”
Former SRAP Dan Feldman said the decision “eviscerates the State Department’s institutional memory on Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“Whether by design or mismanagement, it leaves the department with no institutional memory on Afghanistan-Pakistan at the very moment when we are on the cusp of surging militarily,” said Feldman. “It’s a recipe for deeper military involvement with no political strategy.”
The phase-out of the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) was put in motion under the Obama administration, and the unit had been shrinking for some time. The plan had long been to let the State Department’s South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau take over the highly sensitive portfolios.
But the sudden timing and the lack of permanent, experienced diplomats in the top jobs overseeing policy for both countries leave the State Department without experienced hands for a region where the United States has been at war for 16 years, former employees said.
And, when compared to other regional bureaus, South and Central Asian Affairs has seen unusually high levels of top staff departures. Unlike other regional bureaus, it does not even have an acting assistant secretary overseeing it.
“The Afghanistan and Pakistan function is being dissolved and transferred into a structure that has been dissolved itself,” a U.S. diplomat familiar with the issue told POLITICO. “We’ve long planned for SRAP to go away, but the intention was for the policy to be transferred responsibly.”
Added a State Department official familiar with the situation: “There is uncertainty about the leadership of the regional bureau given recent departures.”
Overall, the developments underscore the rapid erosion of leadership at the State Department under Trump and Tillerson and the potentially damaging effects it could have on U.S. diplomatic efforts. With SRAP gone and the regional bureau’s status unclear, it’s not certain who will oversee the many relationships built with Afghan and Pakistani diplomatic counterparts. Such relationships need constant tending, and can fade quickly.
Although there presumably will still be staffers, such as office directors, dealing with both countries, those positions do not carry as much weight as those of higher ranks. Even if one of those officials were named to a higher rank on an acting basis, he or she would still have limited sway over setting long-term policy.
“It’s a decision seemingly bereft of any strategy, as it eviscerates the State Department’s institutional memory on Afghanistan and Pakistan, thus marginalizing State’s role at a critical moment when it looks likely that the Pentagon will opt to increase troop levels in Afghanistan,” said Dan Feldman, a former special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “If the goal of that military surge is to help energize a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, which even military leadership acknowledges is the only long-term sustainable resolution there, how can that be accomplished with a neutered State Department?”
The State Department press office did not immediately respond to a request made by Politico for comment.
The U.S. diplomat said the highest-ranking official at the moment in the South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau is the acting principal deputy assistant secretary, Howard Vanvranken, whose background is more in management than policy. The man who had been serving as the bureau’s acting assistant secretary, William Todd, was transferred earlier this month to help run State’s human resources bureau, which has also seen leadership turnover. The regional bureau’s Web page lists only one serving deputy assistant secretary, and he deals with Central Asian countries, meaning he’s not likely to also take on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Laurel Miller, the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, bows out Friday; she was detailed to State from the RAND Corporation. Another person leaving Friday is Jonathan Carpenter, acting principal deputy assistant at SRAP.
The U.S. diplomat said Tillerson and his staff had been repeatedly warned about SRAP’s coming phase-out and the need to transfer the policy portfolios in a proper way. But the secretary of state appears in no hurry to fill out the leadership ranks in any of his regional bureaus.
Tillerson is looking at ways to restructure the entire State Department and has indicated that one reason so many positions have been left unfilled is because he’d prefer to reorganize the building before filling all the roles. The Trump administration’s budget plan envisions a roughly 30 percent cut to the State Department, so there’s anticipation that Tillerson will try to cut many positions. In any case, because many of State’s leadership roles require Senate confirmation, it could be well into 2018 before the department’s top levels are filled out.
Even as U.S. diplomats appear to be increasingly sidelined under Trump, the president has given the Pentagon more deference and intends to increase its budget. That’s led to growing concern that the U.S. policy in Afghanistan will be increasingly run by military leaders instead of civilians.