Permissible Arms

Only going forward

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, us defense, us politics by Karaka on 6 October 2009

Richard HolbrookeGeorge Packer’s recent profile of Richard Holbrooke that appeared in the New Yorker last week has conveniently been made available in its entirety online, just in time to make all the grafs I transcribed on Friday a waste of effort. Oh well.

It was a long, thorough, and clear-eyed picture of Richard Holbrooke, a man who has been in and out of politics for years and is now the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan; that is, the civilian co-ordinator for US efforts in those two countries. Appointed by President Obama, he’s close with Secretary Clinton and is someone to keep a close eye on as the Obama administration [eventually] concludes its review of the Afghan war. Read the article yourself, but here’s the bits that stuck out to me.

Afghanistan and Pakistan now constituted a single theatre of war, Holbrooke wrote, where America would have an unavoidable interest long after the war in Iraq was history. “The conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize,” he wrote in March, 2008. “This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history.”

That’s a little more than a year and a half ago, and as much as its proving to be true now, many folks don’t seem inclined to hear it.

Shortly after the Inauguration, Obama went to the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a slide briefing; instead of delineating a clear goal, the briefing listed more than a dozen goals. Obama called [Bruce] Riedel and asked him to lead a two-month strategic review of the war. Holbrooke would work closely with him.

I guess that’s mostly a “If you think it’s bad now, imagine what it was like nine months ago!” anecdote.

A pure counterterror approach had, in fact, been the Bush Administration’s policy for yeas: kill or capture terrorist leaders, with minimal support for political institutions in Kabul and Islamabad. It had created the mess that Obama inherited, with two countries under threat from insurgents and Al Qaeda’s strength increasing. “Al Qaeda does not exist in a vacuum,” Riedel said. “They’re part of a syndicate of terrorist groups. Selective counterterrorism won’t get you anywhere, because they bad guys don’t stay in their lanes.” And without an extensive military presence and connections to the Pakistani and Afghan governments the US would likely lose the intelligence networks that have been built up since 9-11. Obama would have to accept the risk that Al Qaeda might pull off another catastrophic attack. The abandonment of Afghanistan would also be a dire prospect for Afghans, especially women, but in war-weary America this argument no longer had force. The basis for a policy had to be American self-interest.

Emphasis mine. It’s hard to convey sarcasm effectively on the internet, but allow me to denote it thusly: [!]Well, of course American self-interest is the only argument that works effectively for a policy change![!] Anyway. Basis for policy shifted, from counterterrorism to a more holistic counterinsurgency.

“There’s a long-term problem,” Abramowitz told him. “It’s going to take a lot of money, a lot of effort. And the Administration, in order to get the money, has to convey there’s a short-term fix. But there is no short-term fix.” John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told me, “Everyone’s on a relatively short fuse here to see that the strategy is being defined correctly.” He expressed concern that the Administration’s strategy “demands greater nation-building resources than people may be aware and certainly than we have thus far committed.” James Dobbins, now with the RAND Corporation, couches the problem this way: “There is a gap between the reason we’re there and what we’re doing. The rationale is counterterrorism. The strategy is counterinsurgency.”

A gap which is playing itself out pretty clearly in the administration right now. Timely article.

Eventually, the Americans would leave Afghanistan, allowing Pakistan to pursue its own interest in the region. “Countries don’t change their strategic vision overnight,” [Vali] Nasr told me. “It’s not as simple as Bush saying ‘I hate terrorism, you hate terrorism, we’re all on the same page.’ This is a long, hard battle. We need to turn the Pakistani military, but we can’t do that without getting it to see its interests differently, which means building relations.”

Continuing to build relationship not only with Pakistan, but as a further bolster to Afghanistan, one presumes.

There was no deal to strike with the Pakistanis, only trust to build, and Holbrooke’s outsized personality seemed to be under wraps. In moments when I overheard him talking to Pakistani leaders, he took the solicitous tone of someone reassuring an unstable friend. “It’s like dealing with psychologically abused children,” a member of his staff said. “You don’t focus on the screaming and violence–you just hug them tighter.” …Beneath Pakistan’s dysfunctional government lies a social system that, in rural areas, remains feudal.

You know, Rory Stewart suddenly comes to mind: And that you can invest 20-30 years in Afghanistan. And if you were lucky, you would make it look a bit like Pakistan. I mean, unless you understand that Pakistan is 20-30 years ahead of Afghanistan, you don’t understand where we’re starting from. And Pakistan is still not an ideal state.

“Why do people join the Taliban?” Holbrooke asked [Helmand Governor Gulab] Mangal. (It was a question that he asked wherever he went.)

“Lack of knowledge, religious inspiration, lack of jobs, poverty,” the Governor said. “Others, because of our wrong practices. And a large number because of pressure–because they will be killed.”

“Do you have a program for those who want to leave the Taliban and come back to the government?”

The Governor said he had discussed the subject that morning with elders in one of the districts. “But will they get jobs?” Holbrooke pressed. “The last programs didn’t work very well.”

He never got an answer to his question. But I’d be real interested in all the responses he got from asking.

Sarah Chayes, a former reporter who founded a sustainable-development cooperative in Kandahar, and who is now an adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, told me, “What the Afghans expected of us was to help create a decent government. Instead, we gave them warlords, because we were focused on counterterrorism.”

Controversial figure, valid point.

The NATO official worried that Holbrooke, instead of leaning hard on the Karzai government, might see Karzai as a necessary conduit for cutting a deal with the Taliban that would allow the Americans to leave. “Holbrooke is fundamentally not a nation-builder, he’s a dealmaker,” the official said. “But this is not something you can bargain your way out of.”

Yeah, that pull quote pretty much stands on its own.

Burt Field, an Ar Force major general and Holbrooke’s military adviser, was beginning to question the military’s model of how to fight the Taliban. He said that the Americans were telling the Afghans, “We’re going to keep the Taliban off your back and connect you to your government–and that’s counterinsurgency.” But, Field went on, “it’s premised on the fact that the government wants to be able to provide those key services. What if that premise is false?”

A question even more vital given the recent elections.

When I repeated Hill’s remark to Holbrooke on the plane, he took out a pen, and on a napkin he wrote down, “INSTITUTION BUILDING.” He drew a line under it, and below the line he wrote “DIP PHASE.” “Things are not sequential,” Holbrooke said. “They have to be parallel processes.” He acknowledged that no Dayton would come at the end of the diplomatic phase.

And that pretty much sums up the situation Holbrooke is in with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Reading this profile didn’t give me a whole lot of confidence that we (as a nation) actually know where we’re going with this thing, but it’s interesting to get such a close profile of someone with significant influence on the Obama administration’s strategy and policy. I think it does give some insight on where Holbrooke is going with this ship he’s steering, and a better understanding of our current diplo relationship with Pakistan. Anyway, read the article.


2 Responses

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  1. onparkstreet said, on 7 October 2009 at 08:14

    ‘We need to turn the Pakistani military, but we can’t do that without getting it to see its interests differently, which means building relations.”’

    I despair when I read things like this. The US and Pakistani interests differ in key, significant ways, and I don’t see that changing with building relations. We want better ties and to do business with India. As long as Pakistan views India through a Kashmir lens, how are we to change interests?

    (I might be a bit biases, here, because my family is from India…..still. I despair when I read things like the above.)

    • karakapend said, on 7 October 2009 at 09:38

      US and Pakistani interests differ in key, significant ways

      It’s true, though I would argue that since Pakistan became nuclear, it’s never been entirely clear what US interests are in Pakistan. Despite aid, and the lifting of the 90’s sanctions, current US foreign policy retains the mandate of not talking about Kashmir, and the US plays both sides of the fence with Pakistan and India, as it were. So in one sense, with al-Qaeda having crossed the border into Pakistan and the US commitment to hunting them down, it’s forced the US hand and required that US foreign policy deal with Pakistan now, rather than later.

      So despite retaining the mandate not to talk about Kashmir (in that profile, Holbrooke frustratedly called it the “k-word”), they still have to talk, in order to get the Pakistani military to co-operate fully in this goal. But as you say, the US and Pakistan–especially since Pakistan has been more or less stable for a couple decades now–have very different interests in the region. It’s a Gordian knot, and the US ain’t no Alexander the Great.

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