Rethinking regional engagement and transition: an initiative proposal for SRAP Grossman

by Nathan Hamm on 4/11/2011 · 4 comments

[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Colin Geraghty — Nathan]

Marc Grossman, regional diplomacy and transition

Recently-named Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) Marc Grossman inherits “a nearly impossible job” that comes with a daunting array of challenges.

On March 21, Afghan president Hamid Karzai officially announced the seven areas selected for the (largely symbolic) first phase of the security transition to Afghan forces (map available here), kicking off a critical but highly uncertain process that will last until 2014. Meanwhile, insurgents prepare their traditional spring offensive after an unusually active winter; several allies have recently left the coalition or plan to reduce their combat forces, leaving most of the fighting to U.S., British and French troops, as well as the nascent ANSF.

For any gain to be sustainable in this environment, it will be essential to minimize external manipulation of Afghan politics and attempts by regional powers to undermine the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy. Secretary Clinton’s February 18 Afghan-Pakistan speech (in which she announced Marc Grossman as her choice for SRAP) stated repeatedly that the United States would intensify its diplomatic engagement with the region in an effort to support and consolidate the progress made on other fronts. While the U.S. strategy still lacks a framework for sustained regional interactions, the speech provided few specifics for remedying this situation.

In this context, there is one relatively simple first step the new SRAP could take that could yield considerable benefit at little cost. Tasked with coordinating the civilian approach to the conflict, Richard Holbrooke during his tenure set up an interagency team that has been invaluable. This should serve as a loose model for a coordinating group based more on regionally-placed resources rather than simply US offices – for example, establishing a regional inter-embassy network under the supervision of the SRAP. This could be done through designating a “point person for Afghanistan” in each key embassy (principally Moscow, New Delhi, Beijing, but also Ankara and Riyadh), perhaps at the Political Counselor level. Such a network would allow for an increased regional interaction on a sustainable basis, as and provide directbinput from multiple countries rather than resting with Washington-based officials alone. The SRAP could convene meetings on a regular basis with this inter-embassy network (either in person or via VTC), to integrate the information this process produces with regards to each regional actor.

Some have called for establishing a regional contact group, or more recently an international facilitator to support negotiations. These proposals merit careful consideration. Yet such mechanisms often prove unwieldy. Pursuing dialogues in a bilateral setting affords the U.S. greater flexibility, at least initially, to explore regional dynamics, identify areas of possible cooperation and evaluate their eventual impact on other regional players.

The objective of an inter-embassy network would be to piece together the different positions of all the parties critical to a successful outcome, perhaps even to determine where possible areas of bilateral cooperation lie and what their repercussions might be. This would not be a decision-making mechanism, but one geared toward information-gathering and improved understanding of regional dynamics. Such an initiative would allow the SRAP to stake out a regional role without overstepping restrictions the White House reportedly sought. Indeed, rather than appearing to establish the SRAP as the administration’s central figure in the region, it would merely institutionalize his position as lead representative of the State Department (Marc Grossman’s recent remarks at the Brussels Forum were careful not to embrace any hint of a broader regional role for himself, focusing solely on the subject of Pakistan and Afghanistan).

Developing an overall understanding of the regional dynamics affecting Afghanistan’s geopolitical situation and engaging with regional powers takes on an increased urgency as the Afghan war nears a critical transition. While the changes on the ground may be expected to be marginal, especially at first, this new phase represents an important psychological shift, as regional actors will increasingly contemplate the future in terms of a post-ISAF Afghanistan. Shaping their perceptions should become an increasingly important objective for the Obama administration. Though the U.S. should be mindful that Afghanistan’s future ultimately will have to be decided by Afghans themselves, regional dynamics cannot be ignored as the U.S. begins to think about a political solution to the conflict and an exit strategy for itself. Eventual pursuit of a negotiated solution, like current attempts to stabilize the country, requires the buy-in of international actors, who possess at the very least the ability to disrupt talks, stoke tensions, or otherwise harm the prospects of a stabilized country. As Jeffrey Laurenti wrote, “peace can only come to Afghanistan if its neighbors will it.”

It will be crucial for the U.S. to project a long-term stabilization effort in Afghanistan, and to define a continued assistance along such lines, in order to encourage regional actors to perceive a stable Afghanistan as an inevitable outcome, and one that isn’t incompatible with their own interests. As Gerard Russell noted, economics could play a role in fostering constructive engagement by Afghanistan’s neighbors. It is however doubtful that they will forgo predefined strategic interests in Afghanistan solely for potential economic gains. Taking into consideration the multi-dimensional regional chessboard, the U.S. must therefore convince them that pursuing narrow interests as in the 1990’s is neither constructive nor ultimately conducive to their own interests long-term. The Obama administration has a narrow window of opportunity to shape regional perceptions, while the U.S. presence is still strong, both on the battlefields and in the minds of neighboring countries.

Now is the time for the administration to make good on the promise of a “diplomatic surge” to complement current military efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the Obama administration looks to prepare an exit strategy that doesn’t undo the progress accomplished by ISAF, establishing an inter-embassy network can be a low-key first step that supports a new focus on the regional dimension of the conflict, establishes a critical but low-profile role for the SRAP in this regard and encourages the pursuit of mutually-reinforcing efforts around shared interests between the U.S. and regional actors

Colin Geraghty is a research associate with the Raoul-Dandurand Chair in Strategic and Diplomatic Studies of the University of Québec at Montréal (UQAM). His research focuses on South Asian dynamics and the regional dimension of the Afghan conflict. He can be reached at

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Boris Sizemore April 11, 2011 at 9:42 pm

‘Colin..This is absolutely a bureaucracy adding, unjustified recommendation. It will neither increase our ability to manage the future in the Region or delay or alter anything the Regional Powers do or don’t do. What we don’t require is a new team of light weights to get even less done than the preceding layers of light weights who get nothing done.

Holbrooke’s interagency efforts were a desperate flop. What the new SRAP does not need to do is add more layers to what is largely a direct action oriented position. This is the last thing we need.

intelgal April 12, 2011 at 6:10 am

Russia already has a special envoy to AFG, Zamir Kabulov.

Don Bacon April 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm

“Some have called for establishing a regional contact group, or more recently an international facilitator to support negotiations. These proposals merit careful consideration.”

Obama said two years ago that he would establish a regional contact group.

March 27, 2009
A new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan
I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

. . .together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.

just a joke April 12, 2011 at 11:26 pm

I find my comments are often removed by Admin, why? You guys do
not like different ideas ?

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