Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has chosen a new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, after months of delay and disagreements between the White House and the State Department over the parameters of the job that became vacant with the December death of Richard C. Holbrooke, senior officials said.
Retired diplomat Marc Grossman is expected to take over as the administration is facing a crucial year for its war strategy in Afghanistan, where it plans to begin U.S. troop withdrawals this summer and to move toward a political settlement including negotiations with the Taliban before the end of 2011.
In Pakistan, a key partner in the strategy, the situation has become even more fraught with peril, as U.S.-Pakistani relations have plummeted to their lowest point in years over Pakistan's rejection of U.S. demands to grant diplomatic immunity to a U.S. official accused of murder there.
The administration has suspended high-level official contacts with the Pakistanis, and senior members of Congress have warned Islamabad that it risks a cutoff of U.S. aid.
Clinton, who met with Grossman Monday morning at the State Department, expects to announce his appointment in a major Afghan-Pakistan speech she will deliver at the Asia Society in New York Friday, if not before, administration officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they could not discuss the appointment on the record until it was announced.
Asked about the planned appointment, Grossman said he was "not in a position to comment."
In a nearly three-decade career at the State Department, Grossman served as assistant secretary of state for Europe and ambassador to Turkey. His last assignment, before retiring from the foreign service in 2005, was undersecretary for political affairs during the first administration of George W. Bush.
He now is vice president of the Cohen Group, which advises international business clients on overseas enterprises. Although the consulting group, headed by former defense secretary William Cohen, has several clients with contracts in South Asia, administration officials said they did not foresee any problem in clearing Grossman for the post.
Clinton said in the days following Holbrooke's sudden death from a torn aorta that she intended to keep the office intact in terms of personnel and mission. She has frequently cited the "AfPak" special representative as the leading example of the "whole of government" approach she has set for administration foreign policy. Holbrooke brought representatives from departments across the administration, along with outside experts, onto his team. Its mandate is to coordinate all civilian aspects of the strategy and serve as an equal counterpart to the military.
But Holbrooke frequently ran afoul of the White House, where some officials disapproved of the breadth of his activities that extended from congressional liaison to negotiator with foreign governments, and senior administration representative to Afghan and Pakistani leaders, all the way to visits to obscure Afghanistan aid programs and Pakistani refugee camps.
According to one candidate who discussed the job with Clinton, she was looking for someone with the stature to speak for both her and President Obama to Congress and foreign governments. Some in the White House, this person said, wanted someone with a more traditional diplomatic background whose duties would be restricted to representing the administration in the region. Disputes about the scope of the job delayed the selection process, as several candidates questioned the degree of authority they would have and wondered whether they would come under the same White House fire as Holbrooke had.
Two potential candidates - Nicholas Burns, who served in the same job as Grossman in the second Bush administration, and Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration- were thought to be too closely identified with U.S.-India relations to serve as viable interlocutors with Pakistan.
Others on Hillary Clinton's list included Frank Wisner, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, and John Podesta, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. It was unclear whether either of them was actually offered - or refused - the post.
Officials said that it would largely be up to Grossman to define the job's parameters. Frank Ruggiero, Holbrooke's deputy and acting representative since his death, is expected to stay on, perhaps focusing this year on reconciliation talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, together with regional coordination.
But virtually the entire U.S. civilian and military leadership in Afghanistan is expected to leave in the coming months, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the embassy's other four most senior officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led international coalition, and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military operations there.
One of Grossman's first tasks will be advising Clinton on new senior diplomats to replace Eikenberry and others in the Kabul Embassy.
Both State and Defense suffer from a thin bench of officials with Afghanistan experience. While the heavy U.S. troop presence in Iraq between 2003-2008 created a large number of three- and four-star generals with extensive command experience in that country, the pool is much smaller in Afghanistan.
"What [Defense] Secretary [Robert M.] Gates has been wrestling with is whether having that Afghan experience is preferable to widening the aperture and bringing in others who may not have as much experience there but who are fresh and may have a slightly different perspective to offer," said Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Although no final decisions have been made, military officials said that Petraeus, who took command last July, will rotate out of Afghanistan before the end of the year. The general who replaces Petraeus will have to navigate a tricky relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leaders. Rodriguez, the second-highest officer now in Afghanistan, has done two combat tours there and is widely thought to have a better feel for the ground battle and the personalities of top Afghan government officials than just about any officer in the U.S. military. But some senior Pentagon officials worry that he lacks the media and political savvy needed for the four-star job in Afghanistan and it does not appear likely at the moment that he will take over for Petraeus.
U.S. officials believe that in the last six months they have made significant progress in rolling back Taliban gains and restoring security in key areas of the south and east, giving the next commander more of a chance to adjust and learn on the job.