In the Loop: Is It AfPak or PakAf?

The AFLAC duck
Richard Holbrooke (not pictured) appears to be beaking with tradition. (AFLAC via Associated Press)
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By Al Kamen
Friday, September 18, 2009

Catchy names, phrases, acronyms and the like are most important in Washington. They can be critical to selling policies and programs, or to killing them. Roosevelt had his "Four Freedoms" to rally folks during the Depression. Wilson had a few points too many in his "14 points" and was unable to persuade the U.S. to join the League of Nations. Ford had the much-derided "WIN" buttons exhorting everyone to "Whip Inflation Now." (Didn't do much for inflation but was popular with the leather crowd.)

Clinton deflected GOP calls for using the budget surplus for a tax cut with the phrase "Save Social Security First." And of course there was the Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT, which was so good even White House spokesman Robert Gibbs used it at a briefing long after the administration decided to abandon the term. Then there's TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) or aid to bankers, and the great MNSTC-I (pronounced "Min-Sticky"), which is the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.

So it was of no small moment last week when State Department inspector general Harry Geisel, testifying about waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the House oversight subcommittee on national security, called the region "PakAf."

"You referred several times to PakAf," said ranking Republican Jeff Flake (Ariz.). "Are you suggesting a shift in emphasis here? I've not seen that in other testimony, but is State leading the way?"

"I hope not, sir," Geisel said, "I just like the alliteration of PakAf more than AfPak. I think they both work."

"Is that just you," Flake asked, "or are others expected to do that?"

Geisel said he would check and, a few minutes later, offered this. "My staff has been kind enough to explain to me how AfPak became PakAf. And the answer is it was Ambassador Richard Holbrooke who started using PakAf."

That came as news to a senior State official, who said AfPak remains the more common formulation in Foggy Bottom. In any event, left unanswered is why the change, and Flake's suspicion of an emphasis shift may be right. (Holbrooke privately has been known to refer to AfPak.) It could be that Holbrooke's so upset with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the election disaster, that he's downgrading Afghanistan.

Or maybe AfPak conjured too many images of that duck in the insurance company ads?


Or it may be that the State Department is simply following the Pentagon's lead. Folks there seem to have leaned toward the PakAf formulation, though both are used, sometimes on the same page of a document, judging from the summary of a strategy briefing given in August to Maj. Gen. Mike Flynn, a senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan.

Flynn approved several parts of the strategy, including having Gallup poll 5,000 Afghans in key areas in Afghanistan such as Kunduz, Helmand and Paktia provinces, according to a summary of a teleconference report. There's been lots of polling in Afghanistan, but this is a huge sample.

The summary said Flynn "needs to understand what causes someone who is disaffected, but otherwise does not want to join the Taliban, to distance himself from the insurgency, whether that is a job or an improved security environment."

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