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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?

By Jena McGregor

 |  February 15, 2011; 9:45 AM ET |  Category:  Change management , Foreign Affairs , Military leadership , Succession planning Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Yes, Richard Holbrook's shoes won't be easy to fill.

But considering all the waste, fraud and abuse of the Iraq and Afghanistan war effort perhaps it's time to reconsider our war effort as well as building Afghanistan's infrastructure (like the power plant for Kandahar which the Taliban will just blow up as soon as it's completed).

According to the Democrats on the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, the Iraq and Afghanistan war effort is estimated to cost $3.5 trillion through 2017 or $46,500 per U.S. family.

Posted by: billeisen1 | February 17, 2011 5:31 AM

DCsandiego has it exactly right about Afghanistan. And Jena's comment that everyone supposedly should have known that we would be in Afghanistan forever (or for "a long time") is one of the most inane and silliest comments I've read in...well, a short while since such comments seem to abound among our political/military "leaders" and the press these days.

We should have left Afghanistan long ago...and anyone with half a brain should have been planning on that long ago, NOT "grooming" a "bench" of people to prolong the stupidity. The contention that if we leave Afghanistan the Taliban would take over immediately, followed closely by another 11 Sept.-type attack in the US, is just pure fabrication...based on nothing. Fanatics planning "terrorist" acts don't need Afghanistan...as proven several times in recent years.

So why are we throwing hundreds of billions of dollars down that rat hole? The Afghans rub our noses in "it" every week, if not every day, as they send our dollars out of the country by the "pallet full" to banks in Dubai and elsewhere; pay bribes to "insurgents" (or who knows who else) to protect our transport convoys; and just waste our billions in every way they can think of...with little or nothing to show for it.

Unfortunately, our spineless political and military "leaders"...in both parties and at every level...prefer one fabrication after another. Meanwhile, government spending is undermining our economy and way of life, as well as our economic future, and we have monumental "issues" for which we don't have sufficient resources: failing schools; state/local governments that can't provide services; crumbling road/bridge infrastructure; etc etc etc.

So, Jena, why is it we're in Afghanistan, again?

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Posted by: zhenge155 | February 15, 2011 10:52 PM

Is this the same Marc Grossman who was receiving cash from the American Turkish Council - while serving as Undersecretary of State?

Posted by: LeszX | February 15, 2011 9:28 PM

While I have neither truck nor sympathy for anti-Semites, I must agree that considering the fundamentalist Islamic perspective of many of the people in power over there (often due to, or in reaction to, our own meddling), Hillary Clinton could have decided no to go with a Jewish American. But of course, Hillary is as terrible a Secretary of State as Condoleezza, with the same absence of empathy and savoir-faire, n'est-ce pas?

Posted by: tdmdphd | February 15, 2011 3:11 PM

I'm afraid Jena's been gulping the kool aid. Afghanistan is critical to US interests? Really? If that's so, why is it that no one can provide a cogent argument for being there after ten years? The justification changes year to year and the media, like this article, just drink it up. Marc Grossmamn held the highest political affairs position in the State Department under the most egregious, arguably criminal, years of Bush/Cheney, e.g. false war in Iraq, torture, illegal renditions, etc. So brilliant Hillary and "go along" Obama think another senior Bush actor is just what we need? What's next, Cheney for special envoy to China? Memo to Obama, stop deferring to Hillary and Gates and get on top of things.!

Posted by: DCsandiego | February 15, 2011 3:04 PM

Frankly, we need diplomatic leadership in Afghanistan like we need another hole in our collective heads. We really don't need to be there in any way, shape, or form at all. The place is nothing but a bottomless pit for our money, not to mention being just a playground for our out of control military.

Better we just pulled our people out and stayed away from whatever develops there. It will not affect our freedoms, rights, or border security no matter what happens.

Posted by: surfer-joe | February 15, 2011 2:57 PM

Yea, having a jew as a special envoy in a muslim country is just the best choice imaginable. NOT!

Posted by: TRACIETHEDOLPHIN | February 15, 2011 2:09 PM


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Posted by: DANSHANTEAL1 | February 15, 2011 12:56 PM

Guaranteed to go big over there. What, Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer and Larry David weren't available? Rahm, quit that race and 'chute in with the gays over Kabul!

Posted by: phvr38 | February 15, 2011 12:53 PM

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