The South Asia Channel

Wading into the quagmire

When Amb. James Dobbins arrives at the ground-floor offices of the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan he will find a depleted staff, a moribund peace process and a mandate riddled with colossal diplomatic challenges. Secretary of State John Kerry called today's state of affairs a "pivotal moment" for the two nations. But it is also a critical moment for U.S. involvement in ending the conflict President Barack Obama once called the war "that we have to win" and now wants only to "responsibly" wind down.

Dobbins is a veteran of uphill assignments.  He oversaw the return of the American flag over a newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2001.  In addition to Afghanistan, he has served in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia.  Not exactly a list of luxe diplomatic posts.

As Dobbins prepares to assume his post on 23rd St, a series of open questions await his attention. Three of the biggest are below.

1)    Troops: Just how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014?  That question remains unanswered as the United States continues to negotiate an agreement with Afghanistan on the shape of the U.S. military presence post-2014. Gen. James Mattis, who most recently served as the commander of U.S. Central Command, is on the record pushing for more than 13,000 troops. Most numbers out of the Pentagon and the White House come in at less than that.  The State Department's Robert Blake noted recently that "we are still in the process of thinking through what our final military presence will be in Afghanistan after the end of the transition at the end of 2014." Exactly when that will be and what shape it will take remains to be seen.

Also an open question: how many Afghan troops will be needed? And how many will be funded? Those two numbers may well end up being different. And the latter should be known sooner rather than later.

2)    Peace process: Right now there is not one of substance to speak of. What shape might one take? The window for action is rapidly closing as frustration between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains very much alive, with Afghanistan arguing that Pakistan looks favorably on Afghan instability. Will Afghanistan and Pakistan agree to agree on conditions for talks?  And what role will the Americans take? Sec. Kerry met last month in Belgium with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and vowed to "under-promise but deliver" as the sides "continue a very specific dialogue on both the political track as well as the security track." What, if anything, the dialed-down dialog yields will be watched carefully as nearly all sides agree that a diplomatic solution - one in which human rights are not made the price of peace - is the lone shot at a lasting and durable peace.

3)    Transition: whither and at what pace will security, political and economic transitions continue? So far, the economic transition has been bolstered by GDP numbers that have been better than expected.  As the World Bank noted, "rapid economic growth" has been accompanied by "relatively low inflation."  But the government is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign coffers for its funding -- civilian aid alone is "estimated at more than US$6 billion a year, or nearly 40 percent of GDP" - and as those dollars dry up, the questions of stability and security arise immediately.  A recent IMF report mentioned by the New York Times notes that tax evasion, corruption and declining growth all mean that the government will find it tough to pay even half of its bills this year. Stories of graft and CIA-filled slush funds do not lead to greater confidence in the Afghan government from either the American public paying for it or the Afghan people who will pay the price of chaos and a political power vacuum.

These are only the most pressing of a rash of questions sure to occupy Amb. Dobbins on Day One.  Fortunately for both Sec. Kerry and Amb. Dobbins, the SRAP position does not require Senate confirmation, so they can get down to work quickly - as they must. The U.S. is speeding toward the end of the NATO combat mission, and both diplomats will soon be hard-pressed to find answers.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

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