Richard Holbrooke and the U.S. Strategy for Pakistan & Afghanistan

I attended a talk yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations on U.S. strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. The talk was started by acknowledging the loss of Richard Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat whose last position was as a special envoy to the Af/Pak region. I posted a while ago about a talk I attended, also at the CFR but at their DC offices, which was very impressive. I also have an odd personal tie as a close friend bought a beach-house most recently owned by Holbrooke and his wife, Kati Maron. They left behind some art and a few things; I had followed Holbrooke’s career and admired him but that slight personal connection made me watch even closer. I was saddened by his untimely death, which some think was stress-related due to his enormous work-load. His supposed last words were “we have to end this war in Afghanistan”.

I sat next to a guy who was in the CIA as a young guy in late 60’s based in India. He later worked for Lehman Brothers when Holbrooke worked there. He said that he was friendly with Holbrooke and his girlfriend at the time Diane Sawyer, sometimes playing tennis with both. He said Holbrooke had a towering ego but was also a kind person and fiercely intelligent. Another guy at my table knew Holbrooke as well and traveled with him a few times when he was supporting Holbrooke’s team with policy advice. He said Holbrooke “surely had some kind of OCD” as he obsessed about details on the food, the motorcade meeting them upon their landing, and other small details. Perhaps it was this kind of near obsession with details, and his incredible drive to achieve, that led to the supposed stress-related death.

Anyway, the panel was fascinating, which wasn’t unexpected when you consider the mind-numbing problems of the region. The panel was comprised of several members of a task force that was supposed to produce a paper evaluating the situation and strategy of the U.S. government in the region. The panel gave a qualified endorsement of current strategy and expected that those who are critical of the war efforts and would like to draw down troop numbers and move towards a “light foot-print” and a “counter-terrorism-plus” strategy would become more vocal when the spring comes, the fighting intensifies, and U.S. casualties pick up.

I haven’t read the task force’s paper and don’t intend to because they needed to come to some consensus, which I think led to a somewhat bland and misleading “qualified endorsement”. Daniel Markey, a CFR fellow who follows the region, called the Karzai government a “failure” and the situation as “unsustainable”. Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad went even further. He described the government as “a criminal enterprise” that uses local appointees to perpetuate a system of patronage that lives off corruption. He said a radical decentralization of political power in Afghanistan, even if means empowering local warlords, is much better than the mafia government that exists (which does sounds like a CIA point of view).

But James Dobbins, a seasoned diplomat and currently at the RAND corporation, disagreed. He pointed out that Karzai has higher popularity ratings among Afghans than Obama does among Americans. He said that Afghans look around at their neighbors and their terrible governments, and recall the horrible 80s and 90s in their country, and see more security and stability and appreciate it.

None of the panelists had particularly ground-breaking views on how to curtail Pakistan’s double-dealing. The Pakistanis are playing both sides because they want influence after the Americans and NATO leave and fear an Afghan state that is more sympathetic to India. Peace with India would change that, but we all know that is a very tough proposition. In the meantime, the impasse will likely stay the same. James Dobbins darkly pointed out though that the relationship with Pakistan is only “one car bomb away” from becoming radically different.

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