July 7, 2017
STATE DEPARTMENT — At a time when the Trump administration has been slow to nominate U.S. ambassadors for posts around the world, there is increasing attention on the absence of an American ambassador in Afghanistan, where nearly 10,000 U.S. troops are deployed.
Six months into his term, President Donald Trump has nominated 20 ambassadors and has had six confirmed. By this point in his first term, President Barack Obama had nominated 40, with three confirmed.
A delegation of prominent U.S. senators visited Kabul on July 4 — the Independence Day holiday in America — and called on Trump to quickly nominate a permanent American ambassador to Afghanistan, citing a critical situation there.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also needs to visit Afghanistan quickly, saying, “All of us realize that it is more than just dropping bombs that will win in Afghanistan.”
Some foreign policy analysts agree that failing to put top diplomats in place in Kabul is dangerous.
Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington said, “The focus in the White House has been on military issues, on troop levels. But there are significant political problems in Afghanistan.
“You have a government that’s totally dysfunctional. You have a unity government in which the two leaders at the top don’t get along. And in the past, in the Obama administration, you had officials like Secretary of State [John] Kerry that were making trips there all the time to try to get these folks together and to try to help mediate disputes,” Kugelman said. “You don’t have any of that now, and the ambassador is the logical person to be that point person.”
Kugelman told VOA he agreed that Tillerson should go to Afghanistan, but said he was doubtful that would happen anytime soon.
“The secretary of state is supposed to be our main link to the world, our top diplomat. And yet, Tillerson has largely been absent from the world. He’s only made several trips overseas, whereas Defense Secretary [James] Mattis and other senior officials in the Trump administration have been very active and present in the world. I think, for me, that’s the biggest drawback right there,” he said.
State Department, USAID on the ground
Asked for comment on U.S. diplomatic vacancies in Afghanistan, the State Department told VOA there are hundreds of dedicated State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development employees working in Afghanistan to ensure that the country never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists.
Lawrence Butler, a former U.S. ambassador and retired foreign service officer, told VOA he expected Tillerson to travel to Afghanistan, though it would not likely be announced in advance for security reasons.
“It is a place he needs to go repeatedly, just to keep his finger on the pulse and to reassure the government of Afghanistan that there is senior representation and that there is understanding of what is going on there,” Butler said.
Trump has also not yet nominated permanent ambassadors to Russia, France, Germany or South Korea, among others.