Little excuse for the thin U.S. leadership bench in Afghanistan
Stepping into Richard Holbrooke's shoes was never going to be easy. The job of a larger-than-life diplomat, who died in December, was always going to be a hard vacancy to fill. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears prepared to announce his replacement for special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, if not before. Officials spoke with a Post reporter on the condition of anonymity, since the announcement had not yet been made.
The man who would be Holbrooke is apparently Marc Grossman, a retired diplomat who spent 30 years working for the State Department, serving as assistant secretary of state for Europe, ambassador to Turkey and undersecretary for political affairs during George W. Bush's first administration. His job is sure to be difficult, coming at a particularly critical juncture for both countries, as the administration plans to begin troop withdrawals this summer in Afghanistan and U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a low point thanks to negotiations over whether a U.S. official accused of murder in the country should be granted diplomatic immunity.
But that is just one part of the difficult leadership tasks he will face. One of his greatest challenges will be the replacement of several high-ranking officials within the Afghanistan embassy, and at a time when the leadership bench is reported to be weak and when there is expected to be high turnover among the top ranks at Defense too. "Virtually the entire U.S. civilian and military leadership in Afghanistan is expected to leave in the coming months," reports the Post's Karen DeYoung, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the embassy's other four most senior officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez.
Having that much new blood in such key posts and at such a critical inflection point would be challenging even for leaders who have a perfect succession plan in place. But DeYoung writes that both departments "suffer from a thin bench of officials with Afghanistan experience." This is notable for several reasons. For one, the U.S. has been embroiled in fighting in the country for a decade, even longer than in Iraq, which has reportedly produced more three- and four-star generals due to the larger troop presence in that country. No student of any kind of history--military, political or otherwise--would have expected the conflict in Afghanistan to be over quickly, which means a leadership pipeline should have been an obvious need and top priority.
Finally, it's surprising because the eulogies for Holbrooke painted him as such a "legendary mentor" who inspired generations of proteges. Perhaps these were people whose careers he helped long before he took on the special envoy job. But given his accolades for mentoring, one might have expected the bench to be a little stronger.
Surely it's not easy to attract the best talent to a war-torn country and groom them for roles that have been rife with controversy. Holbrooke may have been unique in his ability to navigate the broad agenda Clinton designed for the "AfPak" envoy, a position that had him locking horns with the White House. Still, there is little excuse for having a thin bench in a place so critical to U.S. interests and where a continued presence there has been clear for so long. When will organizations--whether governments, military or business--make succession planning a bigger priority?
February 15, 2011; 9:45 AM ET |
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