I went to a talk last night by Richard Holbrooke at the Council on Foreign Relations in DC last night. My firm is a member and I attend these events regularly in NY and last night was one of my favorites. Holbrooke is one of the most polished diplomats I’ve heard speak and he spoke with true fluency on the issues.
Holbrooke said he was willing to answer questions about the military surge and the reasoning behind it, but stressed that his portfolio was on the civilian side of the Afghanistan/Pakistan issues. He said that he thought for years aid to Pakistan has been unbalanced, with a heavy bias towards military aid and not enough focused on civilian programs that will ameliorate the virulent anti-Americanism so widely prevalent there and help develop what is a shockingly backwards country.
Holbrooke insisted on introducing the 17 members of his team that occupied much of the first 2 rows on one side. People snickered a bit at this insistence, and some clearly thought it was a politician wasting time, but I thought it was extremely interesting to see the multi-disciplinary nature of his team, which has essentially every major US government office involved, aside from the CIA (though they were well represented in the crowd).
Two of the best moments were by journalists asking questions (which isn’t always the case at the CFR, where most of the talks are off-the-record). The first was by a Pakistani journalist from the Pakistan Spectator who practically leaped out of his seat to get the attention of Michael Gordon, the moderator and NY Times correspondent. The guy wanted to essentially declare that nothing would happen in the area unless the Kashmir issue was resolved and what was he doing about it. He spastically tried to lump in several questions but was cut off by Gordon. Holbooke was originally supposed to have Kashmir as a part of his portfolio but when the Indians got wind of it they went ballistic and it was taken away from him. The Indians freak out over perceived outside interference in the Kashmir question. Holbrooke, the cool character, told the dorky Pakistani that he “wasn’t working on the issue” and then moved on.
Shortly after that Pam Constable, who covers Aghanistan for the Washington Post, asked rather despondently if the US government was actually serious about trying to improve Afghan society and painted it in rather hopeless terms, referring to the “defiant self-destruction” that she claims to witness regularly there. Holbrooke, again Mr. Smooth, said that he was surprised to see Pam there, that he has only met her once but admires her reporting greatly and always asks for her when he’s in Kabul but is always told she’s out reporting from the hinterlands. He proceeded to tell her why the US was going to be succesful, and had a number of really interesting insights into the agricultural programs that the US is pushing now in Afghanistan, many in place of the opium destruction, which he called counter-productive as they drive farmers into the arms of the Taliban. He also pointed out that even in the US we have “defiant self-destruction.”
I wanted to try to introduce myself to Holbrooke at the end. Two friends of mine last year bought his former house in the Hamptons and I wanted to see what reaction I could get out of him if I mentioned some of the shenanigans that go on there regularly now. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who wanted a word with Richard and it didn’t happen.