State Department plans to eliminate special envoy on Afghanistan, Pakistan

The State Department is planning to eliminate the position of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, senior US officials confirmed to CNN Friday.

The move comes as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is conducting a broad review of the State Department’s organizational structure with the intent of streamlining reporting channels, and potentially cutting several dozen similar senior positions.

But the decision to eliminate this particular post comes at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration is re-evaluating US military strategy in Afghanistan, potentially paving the way towards sending several thousand more troops to the country. That timing raises questions about where civilian leadership fits into the strategy writ large.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the move.

A State Department spokesperson pushed back on the reports Friday, saying: “The secretary has not made a decision about the future of the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

But the spokesperson added the department will maintain the Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs offices, which currently report to the special representative, to address policy concerns and the bilateral relationship with the countries.

The Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan post was created in the early days of former President Barack Obama’s administration, ahead of a major troop surge in the Afghanistan War.

But the post lost much of its prestige after Ambassador Richard Holbrooke — the powerhouse diplomat who first held the job — died in 2010 of a torn aorta. Holbrooke had been the Obama administration’s point man in the volatile Afghan-Pakistani war zone, and subsequent holders of the office were unable to match his influence.

In congressional testimony last week, Tillerson said he was looking to cut back on special envoy and special representative positions in the agency to empower regional bureaus to take control of their issue areas.

“This is some of the confusion that we’re getting out of the (State Department’s recent employee survey),” said Tillerson. “We’re hearing confusion around, you know, what’s the mission, who owns it?”

Tillerson has also put a hold on appointing permanent officials to vacant special envoy positions until his review of the department’s structure is complete. The Afghanistan-Pakistan position was one such position, and had been filled on an acting basis since the inauguration.