The Trump administration appears poised to close the stand-alone State Department office devoted to policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan that was the brainchild of diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, but it has not made a final decision, the State Department said.
The acting director of the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and her deputy stepped down Friday. Current and former employees said they expected that the office would be absorbed into the larger State Department division responsible for South and Central Asia.
The closure had been expected as part of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s planned downsizing and restructuring of the department, an effort that is also expected to result in the closure of other stand-alone offices or special envoys.
But on Saturday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said some of the office functions would be retained.
“The Secretary has not made a decision about the future of the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Nauert said.
The State Department statement thanked office director Laurel Miller, who was on loan from the RAND Corp., but said nothing about even a temporary replacement. The statement noted that Tillerson wants to review the utility of all special envoys, and eventual closure appeared by far the most likely outcome.
The confusion over the previously high-profile Afghanistan-Pakistan office is compounded by the lack of permanent, experienced diplomats in the top jobs overseeing policy for both countries. That leaves the department without top-level expertise for a region where the United States has been at war for 16 years, former employees said.
Uncertainty over the office comes as the administration is conducting a lengthy review of policy toward both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as the Pentagon prepares to send thousands of additional U.S. forces to the war in Afghanistan.
“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 Dan Feldman, a former director of the office under President Barack Obama. “It’s a recipe for deeper military involvement with no political strategy.”
But the SRAP office, as it is known, had shrunk to about a dozen employees — from nearly 100 at its height — before the end of the Obama administration. Its mission had narrowed, too, from the main diplomatic player overseeing strategy associated with Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan and troubleshooting the difficult U.S. relationship with Pakistan to a group of specialists managing ongoing U.S. programs.
Some Obama administration officials and State Department rank and file had considered the office redundant and advocated closing it years ago.
Vikram Singh, who was a deputy of the office under Holbrooke, said it makes sense to fold the position into the South and Central Asia Affairs bureau now. But the timing, he said, betrays a lack of strategy and is symptomatic of a vacuum in critical positions throughout the State Department.
“I don’t think there’s only one way to run a war,” he said. “But you should have a game plan and staff it accordingly.”
Singh and others pointed to vacancies in the top positions at the South and Central Asia Bureau, among other open diplomatic jobs. Meanwhile, an expanded military plan for Afghanistan appears to be going forward separately.
“We’re adding troops, but we’re doing nothing to advance the diplomatic or political steps necessary to find a solution,” Singh said. “This is not just baffling. It’s the height of irresponsibility.”
The office was created during the first year of the Obama administration in 2009 as a perch for Holbrooke, a blustery and talented diplomat who was one of several special envoys named by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
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.
In her State Department memoir “Hard Choices,” Clinton wrote that the difficult portfolio “seemed in need of his outsized talents and personality.”
Holbrooke set about recruiting “the best minds he could find from inside and outside of government,” she wrote, including academics, development experts, diplomats and specialists from other federal agencies.
Holbrooke died suddenly in December 2010, after suffering a torn aorta during a meeting with Clinton in her State Department office.
On Friday afternoon, the small suite of offices housing the special representative looked normal. Two young men sat at desks in the anteroom, a television set was turned to news and no moving boxes were in sight.
One of the men said the acting director, Laurel Miller, was unavailable to talk to a reporter. Miller did not return a phone call to her office later in the afternoon.
James L. Dobbins, a veteran diplomat who ran the SRAP office from 2013 to 2014, said the Obama administration had begun plans to shutter the office after the 2016 presidential election, when the incoming Trump administration indicated it planned to do away with the SRAP and other adjunct special envoys. That decision was later put on hold, but Dobbins said it was no surprise that the office would eventually close.
“It’s absolutely normal for any new administration to do away with ad hoc special arrangements the previous administration had, and then do their own,” said Dobbins, a senior analyst at Rand Corp.
He added, however, that “every administration says it wants to do away with special envoys, and they end up having 30 of them by the time they’re through.”