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, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the State Department was mulling the move, but said it hadn’t yet made a final decision. 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 experts.
Several current and former officials told TheWall Street Journal, which first reported the decision, 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.
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.
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.
The move comes as Secretary of State Rex 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.
(c) 2017, Foreign Policy · Robbie Gramer