Islamabad, Afghanistan

A few short weeks after President Obama took the oath of office, he introduced a policy to combat terrorism in South Asia. This policy became widely known as AfPak, a term coined and promoted by the then-U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. The term reflected the Obama administration's strategy of adopting a unified policy for dealing with the two countries key to fighting the war on terror. 

Soon it became clear that neither the Pakistanis nor the Afghans were comfortable with the term. In June 2009 former president of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf criticized the term in an interview, saying, "I don't like the term AfPak... I do not support the word itself for two reasons: First, the strategy puts Pakistan on the same level as Afghanistan. We are not. Secondly, there is an Indian element in the whole game." 

In response to this Holbrooke said that the term was not meant to demean Pakistan but was, according to The Hindu, "'bureaucratic shorthand' intended to convey that the situation in the border areas on both sides was linked and one side could not be resolved without the other." 

Musharraf has been criticized for many things, but in this case he had a point. Obama had recognized early on the importance of a peaceful resolution to the thorny problem of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, so much so that he had discussed a role for Bill Clinton as a special envoy to hold talks with the nuclear-armed neighbors.  India launched an aggressive and successful lobbying campaign to leave India out of AfPak. 

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said:

The Indians freaked out at talk of Bill Clinton being an envoy to Kashmir. The reason they were so worried is they don't want their activities in Kashmir to be equated with what Pakistan is doing in Afghanistan. ... They [India] don't want to be grouped with the "problem children" in the region, on Kashmir, on nuclear issues.

By January 2010, Richard Holbrooke had stopped using the term AfPak, arguing that "we can't use it anymore because it does not please people in Pakistan, for understandable reasons." 

Holbrooke's efforts to shelve the term notwithstanding, AfPak had evolved from "bureaucratic shorthand" to a mindset in U.S. foreign policy circles. Consider the following email the U.S. Department of State sent to journalists about Secretary Clinton's most recent trip to Pakistan:  "Secretary Clinton will hold a townterview in Islamabad, Afghanistan on October 21. Watch the video live here starting at 4:00am EDT."

No wonder the U.S. is still in a fix trying to resolve issues with Afghanistan and Pakistan. What could be the cause of this embarrassing geographical error? One can argue that it could be the result of the endurance of the term AfPak in diplomatic circles. There's also a possibility that this happened because Secretary Clinton's visit was kept so secret that even State Department officials did not know her schedule. Her surprise, unannounced stopover in Kabul, Afghanistan may have confused the State Department employees responsible for sending out such messages.  Maybe the person who wrote it had a cut and paste accident. Perhaps it's a textbook example of a diplomatic Freudian slip: Pakistan and Afghanistan have become so intertwined that they even share a capitol.  

While there are two recognized countries called Pakistan and Afghanistan, the reality is that there are three. The disputed frontier "border" between Afghanistan and Pakistan is referred to as the Durand Line. Named after the Foreign Secretary of British India, the Durand Line Agreement of 1893 divides the ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the poorly marked border. The demarcation is not recognized by Afghanistan; more importantly, it is ignored by the Pashtuns, who have in effect established a virtual state nicknamed "Pashtunistan."  Referring to "Islamabad, Afghanistan" is more than an error.  Considering the geopolitical realities and complexities of the frontier, it is a symbol of the objections to the connotations of the term "AfPak."

Let's cut the hardworking State Department press officer some slack. Since "to err is human," this slip was totally an unintentional but somewhat humorous mistake made in an email note. 

Less amusing is the spectacle of a Republican presidential candidate who is cheerfully and almost proudly ignorant about this region full of "-stans." When Herman Cain was asked in an interview how he would handle the media's attempt to trip him up, he replied, "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, 'You know, I dont know. Do you know?'" Cain went on to say that knowing the names of leaders of "small, insignificant states" has no impact on national security.

Complete ignorance of the region is one thing. Dismissing the relevance of Uzbekistan -- with a Z -- by implying that a basic understanding of geography and a country's strategic importance is a dirty trick cooked up by effete, smartypants journalists is insulting and dumb at the same time. One has to wonder whether Cain watches the news occasionally, if at all. If he did, he would know that Presidents Bush and Obama view Uzbekistan as a viable alternate transit corridor to resupply the troops in Afghanistan, thereby reducing dependency on Pakistan. Cain's flippant response to the Uzbekistan question is not a humorous error. It's shameful and embarrassing. If Cain is going to make a determination about which countries or regions are not important to America, surely it's not unreasonable to expect he'd make an effort to know which countries or regions are.

A reminder:  The last time we saw a Republican candidate for president display a combination of ignorance and defensiveness about foreign affairs was in 1999, when a reporter in New Hampshire had the nerve to subject Texas governor George W. Bush to  a pop quiz.  Bush failed spectacularly.  When the reporter asked Bush to name the leader of Pakistan, the candidate responded, "General. I can name the general. General."

Bush got elected anyway. Twice. The rest is history.