The Cable

Afghan and Pakistani delegations arrive in Washington

Delegations from Afghanistan and Pakistan land Monday in Washington for meetings at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon.

The visitors arrive at a key moment. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he will deploy an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and teams of U.S. officials are busy conducting a major strategy review of U.S. policy in the region.

The teams will meet Tuesday through Thursday for bilateral meetings between U.S. and Afghan officials, U.S. and Pakistani officials, and joint meetings of American, Afghan, and Pakistani officials, a U.S. official involved in the strategy review told The Cable.

The visiting delegations "will be asked to seriously deal with the hard issues: how do the Afghans want to deal with [the insurgent activity on] their border, how to do this better, how to undermine those insurgents that run across their territory," the official said, on condition of anonymity.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, announced the planned visits of the delegations in an interview last week on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

The official said that as many as 20 officials from across the U.S. government are involved in the strategy review, which is being conducted under the auspices of the National Security Council and being led by former CIA and NSC official Bruce Riedel, who has taken a 60-day leave from the Brookings Institution to conduct it. Also involved in leading the review are Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, and Holbrooke.

"The optics are good," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. "The U.S. seems to want to bring its partners into the analysis.

"But I am not sure if it will extend beyond that," Nawaz continued. "Will Pakistan's or Afghanistan's views carry much weight? Not likely. There is still too much distrust. And U.S. aid to Pakistan, both military and economic, is still small compared to what it gives Egypt or Israel and there is no demand for accounting for each dollar sent to those two countries. Pakistan, meanwhile, is subjected to a reimbursement system that is fraught with suspicions and problems. And Pakistan lacks the tools it needs to fight an insurgency. Helicopters in the main. Why not give them the Blackhawks they need from the U.S. stock that has and is being replaced with newer models?"

"One of the issues for discussion with the U.S. will be: the Afghans want greater coordination on military activities," a former advisor to the Afghan government told The Cable. "They also want less military activity in Afghan villages as al Qaeda is not in Afghan villages," he asserted.

 "These meetings are unusual," said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is a high wire act to bring everyone to D.C. But probably also a good idea, considering the extent to which tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been a part of the broader challenge there.

"I think the Pakistanis and Afghans appreciate being brought into the process, rather than simply informed of our strategy," Markey continued. "There's a potential that if they don't like what they hear, or if they feel slighted [or] ignored, that they will voice those concerns in ways that are unhelpful. Still, for now the symbolism is good."

The U.S. official said there is growing consensus among Washington security experts "about some of the key dominant themes: the need to halt the security slide, and for more troops. ... The need to take a whole government approach, and to have greater civilian capabilities in there. The need to work harder with Pakistan to increase its capabilities" to counter the insurgent threat.

A continuing point of contention for both the Pakistani and Afghan governments is the United States' stepped-up use of Predator drones to strike suspected terrorist networks on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Anonymous U.S. intelligence officials have defended the strikes in the press, but both governments have complained about the civilian casualties and the resulting domestic political pressure the strikes have put them under. A recent UN report found that more than 500 Afghan civilians had been killed by air strikes in 2008.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, seemingly revealed at a recent congressional hearing that the United States was flying such Predator missions from an air base in Pakistan, news that had been reported in 2006 in the Washington Post, her spokesman later pointed out. The U.S. government does not officially acknowledge the use of the Predators.

"The Predators are a mixed blessing," said Nawaz. "They have been successful in putting pressure on the targeted groups. They also represent increased collaboration between Pakistan and U.S. intelligence, for without ground level intelligence, the Predator cannot be fully effective.

"But keeping this collaboration under wraps harms the perception of the U.S. among the Pakistani population and that prevents the government from gaining their support in this effort as part of 'Pakistan's war,'" Nawaz added.

Holbrooke also told the NewsHour that a delegation of senior Indian officials would be coming to Washington "a couple weeks down the road."

The Cable

Re: Appointments: What's taking so long? Some explanations.

The other day The Cable reported on foreign-policy community chatter about frustration and angst over why it seems to be taking so long for Obama's appointments to be rolled out. Since then, a few sources have weighed in to give a glimpse into the mysterious process and efforts at explanation. (Some of them, mind you, also share the sense that it is indeed taking a long time.)

Several sources identified vetting as the main reason for the delay, particularly in the wake of the administration running into trouble over the Tom Daschle and William Lynn nominations.

"It's political vetting," one former Hill aide told The Cable. "By lawyers, looking through tax records, people's maids [legal status], etc." Some good people have been called by the administration to see if they would be interested in certain jobs and have said, "Take me off the list," he said, frustrated by the extended process.

According to the White House Web site, there have not been any people nominated to Senate-confirmable posts since Daschle withdrew his nomination to head Health and Human Services on Feb. 4. (Today, the White House announced the appointment of a nurse, Mary Wakefield, to head an agency within HHS charged with ensuring access to health care.)

One Democratic foreign-policy hand close to the administration said that people have been slotted for various positions, but the only announcement that will be made is their formal nomination and that will come as soon as they've been fully vetted, which takes more time then selecting people. Whoever goes through that process first is supposed to be announced, whether they are appointed to a more senior or more deputy position. There are two classes of citizens, he noted, the appointed/annointed, who do not require confirmation, and those, more extensively vetted, who do.

Those State Department appointments not requiring Senate confirmation have gotten into place more quickly in many cases, such as Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and policy planning chief Anne-Marie Slaughter. On Friday in Seoul, Secretary of State Clinton announced that Fletcher School dean and former US ambassador to South Korea Stephen Bosworth would serve as the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy -- another non-confirmable post.

"The administration has concluded that they can just appoint the top diplomats, bypassing Congress," another former official noted of the Holbrooke, Bosworth and Mitchell appointments. "An interesting precedent."

At the State Department, the only Senate-confirmable appointments officially announced to date are that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, deputy secretaries of state James Steinberg and Jacob Lew, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. All have been confirmed. At the Pentagon, the only appointments yet officially made are those of Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, Comptroller Robert Hale, General Counsel Jeh Johnson, and under secretary of defense for policy Michèle Flournoy, in addition to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Several other people not requiring confirmation have started working at the Pentagon on a consultant basis. At the Treasury Department, the only appointment officially made so far is that of the secretary, Timothy Geithner.

A former senior U.S. official thought there was a reluctance to announce State Department assistant secretaries until all of the under secretaries had been officially rolled out. He suggested the decision on the under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs position ("G") may have been holding things up. (Sources had previously suggested among the top candidates for "G" were former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual, former Gore environmental and science advisor David Sandalow, and former State Department counselor and close Clinton advisor Wendy Sherman. Another source told The Cable he knew of one person who had turned down the job, but declined to identify the person. Multiple sources said in addition Sherman had declined the job. Pascual, Sherman and Sandalow did not respond to queries.)

But even for those already working in career positions inside the government, the appointment decision-making process appears very closely held. "A lot of people waiting to hear about assignments have remarked it is being handled with greater secrecy than usual," one U.S. official said. "We have all been told to be patient and not to get too worried."

At the State Department, some assistant secretaries expected to depart with the outgoing Bush administration were asked at the last minute to stay on indefinitely in the transition, causing according to some in the building a temporary sense of policy drift. "For a lot of issues, people are waiting for clarity," the U.S. official said. "For the general parameters of the policy. ... There is no place where we have seen sweeping changes in policy yet." The administration is currently reviewing U.S. policy toward several countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

And certainly, the short-staffed administration has been consumed with efforts to shore up the U.S. economy. "We have the stimulus, TARP 2," the former Hill aide continued. "At the Treasury Department, there has only been one official confirmed, the secretary. That's it."