Conflict & Justice

Unenviable task for new Special Envoy


U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman, who was recently named the new Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaks at a press conference on Aug. 31, 2001 in Bogota, Colombia. (Carlos Villalon/Getty Images)


Carlos Villalon

Marc Grossman, whose appointment as Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan is expected to be officially announced within the next few days, is most likely already feeling the pressure of his new job.

Grossman will have the unenviable task of trying to fill the larger-than-life shoes of Richard Holbrooke, who stormed through the Special Envoy role until his untimely death from a ruptured aorta in December.

But there are a few things that Grossman should keep in mind. The Special Envoy job has proven to be a bit of a poisoned chalice for the two eminent diplomats who have taken it on: Holbrooke for the United States, and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles for the United Kingdom.

For one thing, it is far from clear what the Special Envoy is supposed to do. Holbrooke frequently clashed with the White House, the State Department and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his bid to impose his indomitable will on a problem that has defied leaders throughout centuries: bringing stability to Afghanistan.

Grossman, an experienced diplomat who nevertheless lacks Holbrooke’s high profile and range of contacts, will have much less freedom of movement than his predecessor. One explanation advanced by the punditry for his selection is his reputation as a “safe pair of hands” who will not challenge the policymakers, but instead calmly represent their interests in Kabul.

Perhaps he should have a chat with Cowper-Coles, who held the UK’s Special Envoy job for about a year before leaving in something of a huff last June. It was an open secret that the British diplomat who had served as London’s ambassador to Kabul from May 2007 to April 2009, strongly disagreed with U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

Cowper-Coles wanted to open negotiations with the Taliban, but was blocked by U.S. policy. He also wanted to take a harder line with Karzai, whose increasingly erratic behavior had the entire diplomatic community worried. But the United States did not see a viable alternative to the mercurial Afghan leader, who once famously threatened to join the Taliban.

Grossman arrives just as Karzai is trying to close all private security companies in Afghanistan, a laudable but impossible task given the country’s instability and the lack of adequate state security resources.

The president also wants to shut down the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are present in most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, funneling aid to local projects and advising provincial governments.

Karzai claims, with some justification, that that the PRTs represent parallel structures and pose a challenge to the development of a strong Afghan government. He would greatly prefer that all funding for Afghan reconstruction be given directly to the central bodies. But given the level of corruption within the country, most international bodies see little alternative to the PRTs.

The insurgency is gaining ground; despite the 150,000 U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, more and more provinces are showing signs of unrest. While some progress is being made in the Taliban strongholds of the south, northern provinces, such as Kunduz, Baghlan, Badghis, and Takhar are seeing more and more insurgent activity.

Grossman may indeed bring a fresh perspective and a new start to U.S.-Afghan relations, as some have suggested. But the veteran diplomat, who seems to have had little experience in Afghanistan, will certainly have his work cut out for him.