Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Afghanistan, the Mumbai Tragedy, and Speculation about Obama’s Point Person on Central Asia at State

Holbrooke
Will Richard Holbrooke become the top US diplomat for Central Asia?

During the election, several journalists (mostly working for media outlets serving people in Central Asia) asked me to comment on the different positions of the candidates towards the region. In general, my response was that neither candidate is probably thinking much about Central Asia. My only caveat was that a Barack Obama presidency might shine a brighter light on the region because of his pledge to concentrate more on ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban and moving that country towards reconstruction and development. As of last week, a new issue has been added to this equation. Terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India now threaten to intensify the long-standing conflict between Pakistan and India, making South Asia suddenly a global hot-spot rivaling the Middle East in its potential explosiveness. As the U.S. Department of State is presently organized, the Bureau focused on South Asia (the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs or SCA) is also responsible for Central Asia. Hence, the deployment of more serious diplomatic power to focus on South Asia would generally mean heavier hitters will also be focusing on Central Asia.

The buzz around Washington seems to suggest that may be what will happen. Today’s “In the Loop” section of the Washington Post notes that “Richard Holbrooke may be tapped to handle a chunk of the diplomatic effort involving South Asia, a move that would put one of America's most prominent diplomatic troubleshooters in the middle of trying to resolve the thorny and interrelated problems surrounding India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.” While it is possible that some sort of special appointment could be created for Holbrooke to address merely that India-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle, one would think that the Post is referring to the position of the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, which is presently occupied by Richard Boucher.

The appointment of Holbrooke to this position would be significant given his political stature. He held an Assistant Secretary of State position in the late 1970s under the Carter administration and has since been the U.S. Ambassador to the UN and was widely thought to be a candidate for Secretary of State both under Clinton and under Obama until Senator Clinton was tapped for that position. In the context of his resume, which includes playing a central role in the Dayton Accords that helped to cease the Bosnia conflict, this would seem to be a rather modest position for Holbrooke, but Obama has already raised the importance of the Department of State in his administration by appointing Hillary Clinton to head it. In that context, Holbrooke, a long-time ally of the Clintons, would be a likely candidate to be the Department’s point person on what is evolving as one of the world’s most critical hot-spots.

If given the position, however, would Holbrooke’s mandate to shore up problems in South Asia merely overshadow Central Asia? I don’t really think so. During the 1990s, when Central Asia was part of the Europe and Eurasia Bureau, the region rarely saw the Assistant Secretary of State responsible for the region. The importance of Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe left Central Asia as an afterthought on the diplomatic priority list. The SCA Bureau, on the other hand, is a different beast. Firstly, it is a much smaller Bureau that, in addition to Central Asia and the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle, only covers Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Secondly, the primary reason for moving Central Asia into this Bureau was to engage the region in Afghanistan’s reconstruction while simultaneously bringing India increasingly into the development of the Central Asian states. Furthermore, as a testament to the importance of Central Asia to a general SCA strategy, Assistant Secretary Boucher has visited Central Asia much more often than his predecessors from the Europe and Eurasia Bureau ever did.

An Assistant Secretary Holbrooke, of course, could take a different approach towards integrating Central Asia into the larger SCA strategy, but I tend to doubt it. Holbrooke is already familiar with Central Asia and has been a fixture at Kazakhstan’s Eurasian Media Forum for several years. While his closeness to Dariga Nazarbayeva during the Eurasian Media Forum at times has raised eyebrows in the microcosm of Kazakhstan politics, it has also meant that he has spent time with Kazakhstan’s inner circle and may have a cache, in that country at least, which any previous Assistant Secretary working on Central Asia has not. Holbrooke, for example, has generally had casual and reportedly frank meetings with Nursultan Nazarbayev when in the country, developing a relationship of respect with the most powerful leader in the region. In this context, I would tend to believe that Holbrooke understands the importance of Central Asia to variety of geo-political issues, including the region’s potential to help in mitigating our present tense relations with Iran, and that he would be unlikely to relegate it to an afterthought in dealing with the larger SCA region.

While this appointment remains mere speculation, even the consideration of Holbrooke for the position of the Assistant Secretary for SCA would suggest that the region will indeed receive special attention from the new administration. Hopefully, such increased attention to South and Central Asia will translate into the stronger engagement that the United States needs to undertake in Central Asia. We may know sooner than we thought.

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