Early in March, Marc Grossman, the newly appointed US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, completed a tour of several countries. Dropping in on Jeddah, Kabul, Islamabad and Brussels, this was his first tour of the countries the US considers crucial to the ‘Af-Pak’ portfolio. This was also Grossman’s first tour since he took over the post left empty by the sudden death of the US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, on 13 December. The most notable public outcome of the visits was a back-and-forth exchange with Pakistani journalists on the issue of Raymond Davis, the US contractor charged with murder in Pakistan and released after paying ‘blood’ money (see accompanying story by Urooj Zia). The other notable aspect during this trip was Grossman’s near-verbatim repetition of policies described earlier by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent speech to the Asia Society, during which she announced Grossman’s appointment. Though early days yet, it seems unlikely that the new incumbent, a diplomat brought out of retirement, will be making the waves his predecessor did.
With his forceful personality and penchant for persuasive bullying, Holbrooke grabbed headlines wherever he went. Prior to his appointment, he had been given credit for pushing through the US policy in the Balkans, by getting Slobodan Milosevic on board for the Dayton Accords. In Kabul, however, this headstrong approach proved less helpful. Among the notable contributions Holbrooke made to American relations with the Afghan leadership was his infamous showdown with President Hamid Karzai following the August 2009 presidential elections. The fallout, which is purported to have involved a shouting match, was over Holbrooke’s criticism of the rigging of polling booths by Karzai supporters, and his insistence on the need for a second round of elections to establish credibility. Seen from the Afghan authorities’ point of view, this was nothing short of betrayal; Karzai’s supporters felt the US, which had no compunction in dumping democratic principles whenever it suited them, was using the charade of democracy to weaken him.
Holbrooke was not solely responsible for this state of affairs. But he did exemplify the falling-out between President Karzai and the US administration that had been set in motion even before Barack Obama took office, when, as a visiting senator, the future president expressed doubts on Karzai’s leadership. Afghan leaders are extremely sensitive to perceptions about loss of face and public humiliation. While Holbrooke’s bullying tactics might have worked with weaker bullies such as Milosevic, his handling of the Afghan leadership backfired. Though the US-Karzai relationship recovered to some extent, it never regained the previous warmth. In retrospect, the appointment of Holbrooke to the position was a miscalculation on the part of the Obama administration. The latter should have been forewarned by the fate of British leader Paddy Ashdown (another Balkans hand), whose appointment as a special envoy in Afghanistan was scuppered once tales of his heavy-handed approach preceded his appointment.
Yet even now, in the aftermath of Holbrooke’s death, the Obama administration does not seem to have grasped the need for a more politically sensitive approach. The current US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, a straight-talking former army general, is known for his dismal opinion of President Karzai, made public through leaked embassy cables as far back as January 2010. In the cables, Eikenberry said that President Karzai ‘is not an adequate strategic partner’ and ‘continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden’. Nonetheless, Eikenberry has been kept in his position, a sensitive post that requires working closely with the Afghan leadership. While tough diplomacy might be thought of as a requirement in Afghanistan, it is through these episodes that the US has lost on the swings what it gains on the roundabouts. Public fallouts have been followed with private capitulation, a fact that many Afghan leaders have caught onto quite quickly. Many Afghan leaders have honed the act of public outrage into a fine art that maximises their own political capital, usually allowing them to extract greater concessions from the US administration.
While Holbrooke’s personal style might have tripped him up in the complex political waters of Afghanistan, it seems unlikely that even his more low-key successor will be able to make much progress. The concept of Af-Pak itself is of nebulous value, and the role of the Af-Pak representative encapsulates much that is wrong with US policy towards the area and the wider region.
Whether weighed in terms of looking for a common approach towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, or a solution to the Afghan conflict, the US approach falls short. Undoubtedly the role and concerns of Pakistan are a major factor in Afghanistan. The role of a section of the Pakistani state in providing support to forces of insurgency, the contiguous areas on the Durand Line where much of the military battle is taking place, and the political entwining of Afghanistan and Pakistan, make it imperative to pay attention to and deal with Pakistan for any future stability in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan, while a dominant player, is not the only one shaping the political canvas of Afghanistan. The complex balance of power in the region – which, apart from Pakistan, includes Iran, the Central Asian states, Russia and India – requires a far more holistic approach than can be encapsulated in the ‘Af-Pak’ strategy of the US.
Beyond describing a geographical region, ‘Af-Pak’ has little coherence as a concept. Insurgent groups operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, challenging the authority of the state apparatus in both countries with differing degrees of success, and the use of terror as a tool by many of these groups is also taking a heavy toll on citizens in both countries. However, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with very different sets of political and social factors as well as very different state and governance structures, require almost diametrically opposite approaches – whether militarily or politically.
In Afghanistan, US policy has centred on the ‘transition’, which will allow the US to withdraw troops from active combat and frontlines and disengage with nation-building. But in Pakistan, the problem is one of intrusive US political and military diplomacy. In Afghanistan, the US is attempting to shore up a weak state structure, often by empowering individuals rather than institutions. Pakistan has a strong state structure, with the problem there being one of balance of power, both between the military and the civilian authorities, and between the army and the ISI. The Afghan state currently lacks the ability to deliver governance, whereas in Pakistan the issue is one of priorities set by the state.
The genesis of the term Af-Pak is commonly attributed to Holbrooke himself. Holbrooke, who earlier had ambitions to become the secretary of state under President Obama, settled subsequently for the role of special representative. Soon after he took the office, in 2009, he explained the construct:
First of all, we often call the problem Af-Pak, as in Afghanistan-Pakistan. This is not just an effort to save eight syllables. It is an attempt to indicate and imprint in our DNA the fact that there is one theatre of war, straddling an ill-defined border, the Durand Line, and that on the western side of that border, NATO and other forces are able to operate. On the eastern side, it’s the sovereign territory of Pakistan. But it is on the eastern side of this ill-defined border that the international terrorist movement is located.
The term certainly had its genesis in US politics rather than the politics of the region it encompasses; neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan have had much use for the term, with its reductive connotations. As former President Pervez Musharraf said:
I am totally against the term ‘Af-Pak’. I do not support the word itself for two reasons: First, the strategy puts Pakistan on the same level as Afghanistan. We are not. Afghanistan has no government and the country is completely destabilized. Pakistan is not. Second, and this is much more important, is that there is an Indian element in the whole game.
Holbrooke himself was forced to admit that the term had backfired, describing it first as a ‘bureaucratic shorthand’, and later saying, in January 2010, ‘We can’t use it anymore because it does not please people in Pakistan, for understandable reasons.’ Though the term was officially dropped, ‘bureaucratic shorthand’ continued to inform policy, and the approach of equivalence was not set aside. In December 2010, the Obama administration came out with its ‘Afghanistan-Pakistan annual review.’
The combination of the two countries in a ‘theatre of war’ approach might well be understandable from the point of view of military commanders. But it is difficult to see why it was embraced as a politico-diplomatic concept, not just by the US but by other Western countries and alliances, who also rushed to appoint their own ‘Af-Pak’ envoys. Two years later, it is still difficult to see what the concept has to offer apart from an increasing proclivity for Western troops to cross the border in violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. The initial crossings have been followed by unmanned drones, with each trespass followed by token apologies.
The ‘Af-Pak’ approach, however, does allow the US to narrow down its goals to immediate short-term aims: the downgrading of the al-Qaeda threat to the US and its allies, rather than the broader and more long-term aim of regional stability. Although the ‘region’ came up for mention in Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Asia Society, her elaboration of US policy left little doubt as to the narrowness of this vision. In its hurry to ‘transit’ out of Afghanistan, the US is looking for a ‘political settlement’ that will involve bringing some of the insurgent groups into the government, a step the US hopes will ensure that such groups will no longer pose a threat to the US. If there is any regional aspect here, it is to try and ensure that regional powers such as India do not become spoilers in any such settlement.
More of the same
The clubbing together of Afghanistan and Pakistan also has another attribute. It disguises the lack of coherence within the US administration towards Afghanistan – not only politically, but also within the State Department, the Defence Department and the CIA. Within Kabul these differences are clearly visible in the day-to-day operational arena. There is little unity of command or purpose in the US approach, and the US ambassador and the US commander based in Afghanistan have often had divergent approaches in policy. These differences were most sharply articulated during the tenure of General Stanley McChrystal, but have not disappeared since his abrupt departure in June 2010. The direct reporting by Kabul-based US officials to Washington has deprived the US of a focus of American authority in Kabul, and the office of the US special representative is based in Washington, not in either Islamabad or Kabul.
This allows various factions of power within Afghanistan to cultivate their own lines of communication directly with players in Washington. An individual who encapsulates the contradictions of US foreign policy is the brother of President Karzai – Ahmed Wali Karzai, known in US foreign-policy circles as AWK. Long rumoured to have links to the drug mafia – a link denied vehemently by the Afghan government and never substantiated by the US, despite regular reports in the US media – AWK is seen as a problem by the State Department, which wants to cut off links to him. The Defence Department, on the other hand, considers him someone they would rather have on their side than as an opponent, and continues to do business with him. The CIA likewise considers him an asset, and has, according to reports in the US media, kept him on their payrolls. The approach, a Western diplomat points out, is ‘not very different from the confused US approach towards Pakistan, its army and the ISI’. However, while such differences have a limited impact on Pakistan’s functioning and well-entrenched state apparatus, they have a disproportionate impact in Afghanistan, which is both weak and dependent.
Holbrooke himself was neither authorised nor senior enough to overcome these differences in US policy, being better suited to bullying leaders of desperate countries rather than trying to sway US politicos. It is unlikely that his successor will make much headway. Grossman’s last engagement with the Afghanistan-Pakistan region was during the 1970s and 1980s, in his first assignment, as a junior officer in Pakistan. Since then Grossman worked steadily, but not spectacularly, as an American diplomat. As assistant secretary of state for European affairs, from 1997 to 2000 he played a role in the US participation in NATO’s military campaign in Kosovo. He served two tenures in Turkey, the last as ambassador between 1994 and 1997, and held the position of undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2001 till he retired from service in 2005.
Holbrooke’s untimely death presented an opportunity to move beyond the narrow agenda defined by the ‘Af-Pak’ office within the State Department. However, the appointment of Grossman and Clinton’s Asia Society speech show that the narrow approach has been embraced with even greater fervour.