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Uncertainty over office of US special representative for Af-Pak

The US administration is yet to decide on the future of the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, creating confusion about its diplomacy in region amid reports that the unit will be wound up.

world Updated: Jun 25, 2017 00:27 IST
HT Correspondent
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson (right) walks with Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar before their meeting at the state department on June 23, 2017 in Washington.
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson (right) walks with Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar before their meeting at the state department on June 23, 2017 in Washington. (AFP)

The US is yet to decide on the future of the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan following the departure of its top official, creating confusion about its diplomacy in the region at a time when Washington is conducting a key review of the Afghan war.

Laurel Miller, an analyst from Rand Corporation who was the acting special representative, left the office on Friday along with her deputy. This was followed by a string of reports in the US media that the post would be scrapped and the office merged with the state department’s South and Central Asian affairs bureau.

“The secretary (of state Rex Tillerson) has not made a decision about the future of the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” state department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Nauert said the state department will maintain the Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs offices, which currently report to the special representative, to “address policy concerns and our bilateral relationship with these two key countries”.

The spokesperson noted that Tillerson had expressed skepticism about the role of special representatives during recent testimony to the House Appropriations Committee on Foreign Operations.

Tillerson had said there were more than 70 specials envoys and special representatives whose work may have actually weakened attention to the issues they were meant to address. He also said the offices of such representatives stripped expertise from regional bureaus of the state department.

The office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was created in January 2009 by former president Barack Obama, who named late diplomat Richard Holbrooke to hold the post.

Holbrooke upset the Indian government by seeking to include the Kashmir issue in the office’s mandate. The move was rolled back after a strong protest from New Delhi. Holkbrooke’s efforts to engage the Taliban in peace talks also did not go down well in New Delhi.

US diplomats believed the office of the special representative was being shuttered with Miller’s departure. But the state department’s flip flop has added to confusion at a time when the US is conducting the biggest review of its Afghanistan policy in several years, with 4,000 more troops set to join the nearly 10,000 US soldiers currently in the war-torn country.

Some US experts have expressed fears the current scenario could give the Pentagon a greater say in Afghanistan policy.

Though Obama himself had planned to wind up the office of the special representative, it was meant to be done gradually. The South and Central Asian affairs bureau too has lost many experienced diplomats – it currently doesn’t even have an acting head – and the latest developments have caused anxiety in the state department.

But others, such as former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, Alyssa Ayres, have said winding up the special representative’s office could help streamline policies. She told Foreign Policy the office had created a “parallel structure” and appropriated experts from the South and Central Asian affairs bureau.