Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Richard Holbrook and the war in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is too expensive for America to sustain and must be brought to an end in a way that lasts. Richard Holbrook knew this and was working to make it happen when he died last December. The end will be achieved through negotiations, not through military actions, and the end will be based on making Pakistan - not Afghanistan - a safer and more stable nation. Stability in Afghanistan is simply unattainable. Pakistan is the key.

But the Pakistanis do not view America as a reliable ally. They well remember that America simply abandoned them in 1989 when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and they are not going to trust America again.

Nicolas Kristoff has taken Richard Holbrook's notes and published an op-ed about what Holbrook thought America needed to do about the war in Afghanistan.
Vali Nasr, a member of Holbrooke’s team at the State Department, puts it this way: “He understood from his experience that every conflict has to end at the negotiating table.”

Nasr says that Holbrooke’s aim for Afghanistan was “not cut-and-run, but a viable, lasting solution” to end the civil war there. If Holbrooke were still alive, Nasr says, he would be shuttling frantically between Islamabad and Kabul, trying to take advantage of Bin Laden’s killing to lay the groundwork for a peace process.

To do that, though, we have to put diplomacy and development — and not 100,000 troops, costing $10 billion a month — at the heart of our Afghan policy. Holbrooke was bemused that he would arrive at a meeting in a taxi, while Gen. David Petraeus would arrive escorted by what seemed a battalion of aides. And Holbrooke would flinch when Petraeus would warmly refer to him as his “wingman” — meaning it as a huge compliment — rather than seeing military force as the adjunct to diplomacy.

As for Pakistan, Holbrooke told me and others that because of its size and nuclear weaponry, it was center stage; Afghanistan was a sideshow.

“A stable Afghanistan is not essential; a stable Pakistan is essential,” he noted, in the musings he left behind. He believed that a crucial step to reducing radicalism in Pakistan was to ease the Kashmir dispute with India, and he favored more pressure on India to achieve that.

Holbrooke was frustrated by Islamabad’s duplicity. But he also realized that Pakistan sheltered the Afghan Taliban because it distrusted the United States, particularly after the United States walked away in 1989 after the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan. And renewed threats of abandonment won’t build trust.
Steve Clemons provides an excellent explanatory comment on Holbrook's views, particularly an analysis of how the American experience in Vietnam should be compared to the current experience in Afghanistan/Pakistan. It's important to remember the differences in how America entered Afghanistan compared to how America entered Vietnam. Vietnam was entered through a long series of decisions which led to 500,000 American troops in country. That was an outcome that would never have been accepted if it had been proposed initially when Eisenhower sent 1,000 soldiers to Vietnam.

In constrast, America was directly attacked out of Afghanistan because of the government of the Taliban and their honored and protected guests, al Qaeda. After 9-11 the American people in a very bipartisan reaction sent troops into Afgnistan. This was a major difference.

Holbrooke thought that the war in Afghanistan was too heavily militarized. It must end, and when it does it will be ended through negotiations. Those negotiations will be based on civilian diplomacy with the military as only a support to the process. With the war as heavily militarized as it is today (under Obama) it will be very difficult to even begin significant negotiations, let alone use them to end the war.

It is really important to remember that a successful conclusion for America in Afghanistan will be achieved through the center of political gravity in that area - in Pakistan. As highlighted above, “A stable Afghanistan is not essential; a stable Pakistan is essential”. America, and especially the American Congress, sees Pakistan as an unreliable ally. How could the Pakistani government claim to be an ally to America and yet be obviously protecting bin Laden in the military garrison town of Abbotabad?

But it was America's abandonment of Pakistan in 1989 when the Soviets left Afghanistan that drives the Pakistanis to support al Qaeda and the Taliban. Those organizations will be there in South Asia long after America cuts and runs and Pakistan will have to deal with them. The Pakistani leadership recognizes that America is a short term ally who is not reliable in the long run.

This is one reason why the militarization of the Afghanistan war is so important. America is spending $10 billion a month on the military in Afghanistan. This is simply unsustainable and will stop, more likely sooner rather than later. This drives the ultimate solution to the war in South Asia into a civilian negotiation and will drive America out of the region as a military force. That seems obvious.

We need to take the lessons that Richard Holbrook would be teaching if he had not died last December. Everything drives the events in Afghanistan/Pakistan towards non-military negotiations. There will not be a military solution.

During those negotiations “A stable Afghanistan is not essential; a stable Pakistan is essential”
That tells us who matters in the negotiations. People who can destabilize Afghanistan re much less important than those who can destabilize Pakistan. In order of priority from the top down that is top members of the Pakistani military, leaders of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and then members of the Pakistani government.

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