National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, an Army lieutenant general who has served in Afghanistan, is deeply invested in the administration’s policy for the conflict there. | Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Aides to President Donald Trump have considered reviving an office the administration shut down months ago that was dedicated to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, a sign that Trump’s policy there remains unsettled.
Multiple sources said that senior Trump aides have discussed resurrecting the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was previously based in the State Department, as a White House-based operation.
The discussions suggest that, well after Trump laid out his Afghanistan strategy in August, his aides are still calibrating their diplomatic approach to the 16-year-old conflict, even as they forge ahead with a tougher military posture there. Already, some prominent names are being floated for the special envoy position, including former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.
The special representative has generally been the main coordinator in the U.S. government on policy related to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Talk of reviving the role comes as Erik Prince, founder of the security firm Blackwater, continues to push an alternative model for Afghanistan that relies largely on private contractors and the appointment of a “viceroy.” Despite the support of then-Trump adviser Steve Bannon, Prince failed to persuade Trump officials to adopt his vision this summer. But he hopes his plan will eventually gain favor with Trump if conditions don’t soon improve in Afghanistan, where a suicide bomber killed at least five people near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Tuesday.
The new vision for a special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan was laid out in late September by national security adviser H.R. McMaster’s office in a paper shared with Cabinet officials, three former State Department officials told POLITICO. One of the former officials said it represented a move by McMaster to assume greater control over U.S. policy in Afghanistan at a time when the State Department is seen as playing a weak role there.
“If this decision comes about and there is an envoy appointed, it will be a sign that McMaster wants to directly manage implementation of the Afghanistan policy,” the former official said, “and probably also that he’s dissatisfied with the degree of attention that the State Department has focused on it.”
The proposal largely mirrors a position created at the State Department early in the Obama administration for its first occupant, the storied diplomat Richard Holbrooke. The office’s prestige faded somewhat after Holbrooke’s death in 2010; subsequent envoys have used the office in different ways, including focusing heavily on trying to jump-start stalled peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson moved in June to close the office as its top official’s term ended, a decision that dovetailed with Tillerson’s desire to streamline the department. Criticism slowed that plan and his aides said for months afterward that the office still existed. But outside experts and former U.S. officials said it had virtually no sway, and this week, a State Department official confirmed that the office has been dissolved, saying its duties and functions “have been fully integrated into the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.”
McMaster, an Army lieutenant general who has served in Afghanistan, is deeply invested in the administration’s policy for the conflict there. He worked hard to persuade Trump not to withdraw but rather commit more forces to help Afghan troops fend off the Taliban, the Islamic State and other militias. Basing the special envoy’s office at the White House would potentially grant McMaster more control over Afghanistan policy.
Spokesmen for the National Security Council would not offer comment for this story.
The former State officials say there is resistance among Tillerson aides to reviving the special envoy’s office, and in particular basing it at the White House. But although Tillerson recently visited Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss U.S. policy in the region, critics say his department is playing a relatively weak role on the issue. That’s in part because Tillerson has named so few people to leadership positions at State.
Since Trump outlined his plans for Afghanistan in a speech on Aug. 21, the U.S. has sent several thousand more troops to the country, dramatically increased its bombing of suspected militants and loosened the rules of engagement. The CIA is also reported to be expanding its covert operations in Afghanistan.
“There’s a harder edge to our military approach there, but it is not enough to win. It’s enough to stave off a military collapse in the near term, but not enough to fundamentally alter the situation in Afghanistan to win,” said Dan Markey, an expert on the region based at Johns Hopkins University.
“There is no way to carry out the necessary policy development, leadership, influence building and diplomacy required to implement a complex strategy without a full-time senior and empowered official leading the effort,” said James Cunningham, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
As word spreads about the possible re-creation of the envoy’s office, several potential candidates’ names have come up in foreign policy circles.
Among them: Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush; retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, a national security aide to Bush and U.S. ambassador to NATO under Barack Obama; and even Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the DynCorp International military contracting giant and who, like Prince, has reportedly encouraged Trump aides to consider alternative approaches to Afghanistan.
Lute did not respond to a request for comment for this story, and Feinberg declined comment through a spokeswoman. Khalilzad also did not offer comment, but he has talked up the need for a special envoy at Washington gatherings, including one on Monday, according to other attendees.
Meanwhile, Prince has been meeting with journalists and others in Washington to pitch his proposal to save Afghanistan.
Prince laid out his idea in a May 31 Wall Street Journal op-ed that proposed an American “viceroy” for Afghanistan who would be responsible for all U.S. government and coalition efforts and who would report directly to the president. He also called for greater reliance on professional contractors to train and fight alongside Afghan forces.
In a recent interview with POLITICO, Prince disputed the idea that he wants to outsource the war to mercenaries — a policy from which critics note he could, in theory, profit. Instead, he argued for a hybrid approach that holds private contractors accountable to U.S. military rules while an empowered viceroy presses Afghan lawmakers to make hard decisions, such as passing a law governing mining.
Prince said he wrote his May op-ed for “an audience of one”: Trump.
“I am told that he read it, circled it, called in the national security adviser and said, ‘I don’t like your plan. I like this one,’” Prince said.
Prince also met with top Trump aides, and he shared an abridged version of his proposal, titled “A Strategic Economy of Force,” with POLITICO.
Prince became a target of fierce criticism in the 2000s after private contractors working for his former company, Blackwater, were blamed for civilian deaths in Iraq. He now chairs the Hong Kong-based security and logistics company Frontier Services Group. His sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s secretary of education.
Trump appears willing, for now, to take his generals’ advice and beef up the U.S. troop presence in the hopes of tilting the battle America’s way. But Prince expects the president will ultimately come around to his point of view.
“I think he’s letting the Pentagon run their playbook for a little while, but I think, tick tock, he’s going to expect different results,” Prince said.