Veteran US diplomat to replace Holbrooke as Pakistan-Afghan envoy

The long and fractious search for a replacement for the late Richard Holbrooke as a special US envoy to both Pakistan and Afghanistan is over, but the job of filling his shoes is looking more impossible than ever, not least because of an expected exodus of top American officials from Kabul this year.

Marc Grossman, who was a top-rank US diplomat for three decades until he moved to the private sector in 2005, has agreed to take on the post after others turned it down. His appointment is expected to be announced by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, during a speech in New York on Friday.

The death from a torn aorta of Mr Holbrooke, a giant on the diplomatic stage, left a void in America's diplomatic front in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While some in the White House resented the wide remit he enjoyed dealing with both countries, Mrs Clinton was adamant she needed someone of similar stature in his place.

Several high profile names were passed over for the job or turned it down, including Strobe Talbott and John Podesta, both of whom served former President Bill Clinton. Another who declined to don the Holbrooke mantle was Frank Wisner, another former diplomat who unsuccessfully sought to mediate with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt before his ouster last week.

Mr Grossman, currently chairman of the Cohen Group which advises companies on ventures overseas, will take the job at a particularly tricky juncture. Relations between Washington and Islamabad are at an all time low, and in Afghanistan the clock is ticking on the start of US troop withdrawals this summer.

The diplomatic and military team he will inherit in Afghanistan will meanwhile begin to dissolve almost the moment he arrives there. Among those set to depart are Karl Eikenberry, the US Ambassador there, as well as all four of the top US officials in the embassy.

It is widely expected, meanwhile, that the top military commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will be rotated out before the end of the year. The number two military officer there, Lt Gen David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military operations, is also set to leave. Officials at the State Department and the Pentagon concede that finding replacements for the departing officials will be difficult.

Violence in Afghanistan is still at critical levels. On the political level, the US is striving to overcome long-running tensions with President Hamid Karzai, while trying to push forward a process of reconciliation talks with elements of the Taliban and other insurgent groups that are seen as crucial to achieving stability, and step up training of Afghan soldiers and police officers.

"Afghanistan is keen to work closely with the new Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy in better coordination and understanding," commented Siamak Herawi, a spokesman for Mr Karzai, who had a prickly relationship with Mr Holbrooke.

The latest downturn in relations with Pakistan follows the arrest of an American at the US embassy on charges of murder. So far the Pakistani government has ignored calls from Washington that the accused, Raymond Davis, who is on the embassy staff, be given diplomatic immunity in the case. He has claimed that he shot the two men in self defence as they attempted to rob him.

In Islamabad yesterday on a mission to try to resolve the stand-off was Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and arguably the only person available in Washington with the stature to get the Pakistani government to focus on the issue. Bilateral talks that were scheduled to take place at the State Department next week have been postponed by Mrs Clinton because of the dispute.

The biggest challenge of all for Mr Grossman will be winning the trust and respect of leaders in both Pakistan and Afghanistan while navigating the sometimes conflicting priorities of his various bosses in Washington at the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House.

Leading players on their way out

General David Petraeus

Unexpectedly pulled into Afghanistan after the sudden departure of General Stanley McChrystal last year, Petraeus is drafting withdrawal plans for President Obama. Once he has presented the President with options for the best exit strategy, which he is expected to do in July, there are suggestions that he could look to stand down. He has denied that he could seek the Republican presidential nomination for 2012.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry

With his relationship with President Karzai strained at best, there have long been rumours in Washington of Eikenberry's return home; any departure, though, was held up by the exit of McChrystal, when it was felt that another change at the top of Afghan policy would be unhelpful. A similar logic may have applied after Richard Holbrooke's death. One of Grossman's key tasks will be identifying the best candidates to replace him.

Lt. General David Rodriguez

Named as deputy commander in Afghanistan in 2009, Rodriguez has considerably more experience in the country than Petraeus, and holds responsibility for day-to-day operations, with particular expertise in counter-insurgency. If suggestions that he could be going home soon prove correct, there are fears that a shortage of top-class military leadership with knowledge of the country could be exposed.

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