With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.
Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.
There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.
By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?