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Secretary of State John Kerry formally announced today that the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Ambassador Jim Dobbins, would retire from the position at the end of this month. His deputy, Dan Feldman, will succeed him as special representative. This is as good a time as any, given the reduced role of the United States and the changing international presence in Afghanistan today, not to mention in the coming years, to fold the special representative role back into the regional bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA). Doing so will permit better policy coordination within the State Department and across the U.S. government on South and Central Asia in the years to come.
Secretary Kerry’s statement, as well as the New York Times article breaking the news of Ambassador Dobbins’s retirement this morning, offered no indication of change in the institutional structure of the SRAP position. In previous administrations, Afghanistan and Pakistan had been part of the South and Central Asia bureau. Earlier arrangements for managing U.S. relations with those countries had grouped them with Bangladesh under one office director, with India/Sri Lanka/Nepal handled by a separate office. In the 2000s, with increased U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, an Afghanistan coordinator role separately handled the uptick in work volume, with Pakistan and Bangladesh still under one office. These offices reported to the assistant secretary of South and Central Asia through the relevant deputies.
In 2009, the Obama administration appointed larger-than-life Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to serve as the first special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. As someone who had dealt with a huge range of foreign policy issues (assistant secretary for both East Asia and Europe—the only person to have held both these giant roles), he had also served as ambassador to Germany and brokered the Dayton Accords that ended war in Bosnia before becoming the Cabinet-rank U.S. ambassador to the UN at the end of the Clinton administration. An indefatigable problem-solver, Ambassador Holbrooke occupied a special place in U.S. foreign policy across every Democratic administration.
As would befit someone of his stature, the special representative designation meant that this role reported directly to the secretary of state, as a separate channel outside of the South and Central Asia bureau. The Afghanistan and Pakistan offices were placed in a reporting relationship to the special representative as well. Bangladesh was moved to the India/Nepal/Sri Lanka office. This new configuration meant that the South and Central Asia bureau had a large carve-out in the middle of its geography, where the assistant secretary, deputy assistant secretaries, office directors, and various desks covered India and the smaller South Asian countries along with the Central Asian stans, but with a missing AfPak middle. One of the deputy SRAPs was dual-hatted as a deputy assistant secretary in the South and Central Asia bureau, but that person’s office and bulk of attention remained within SRAP.
This arrangement permitted a tightly focused policy push across the U.S. government on Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it also created a parallel bureaucracy alongside the SCA regional bureau, which resulted in communication and coordination gaps by virtue of that institutional separation. Parallel bureaucracies don’t facilitate ease of policy coordination, particularly on the nuts and bolts of bureaucracy like invitations to and participation in meetings (especially if the numbers are limited, as happens all the time in government), clearing on memos, representation of issues for decisionmaking, etc. Parallel bureaucracies, as any historical institutionalist would note, create incentive structures and path dependencies specific to their interests.
Other regionally-focused special envoys, by contrast, tend to report to the regional assistant secretary. For example, in the East Asia and the Pacific bureau, the earlier special envoy for Burma, the special envoy for human rights in North Korea, and the special envoy for Six-Party talks positions all report to the assistant secretary. In the Africa bureau, the special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, and the special envoy for the Great Lakes region report to the assistant secretary. These all show that focused envoy roles embedded in the regional bureau can work well.
The United States has committed to a troop drawdown in Afghanistan that reshapes the level of our engagement in our longest war. Whatever happens in the coming years, we need to expand our engagement with the countries throughout the South and Central Asian region as their security interests are most immediately affected by Afghanistan’s future. As I have argued elsewhere, we particularly need to dramatically increase the scope of our consultations and coordination on Afghanistan with regional power India--the fifth largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan and a partner with clear security concerns in the region. A seamless overview of U.S. relations throughout the SCA region, and the impact of the coming drawdown in Afghanistan, would be far easier to accomplish if our focused diplomacy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan was embedded within the South and Central Asia bureau. Secretary Kerry, now’s the perfect time to fold SRAP back into SCA.
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