Opinion: Weighing Holbrooke's "last mission"

BOSTON — Nobody who is interested in the fate of the American enterprise in Afghanistan should fail to read George Packer’s illuminating profile of Richard Holbrooke in the Sept. 28 issue of the New Yorker.

Holbrooke is the extremely talented, irascible, nakedly ambitious, and controversial diplomat whom President Obama has chosen as his top civilian envoy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

Holbrooke is best remembered for knocking Balkan heads together to solve the Bosnian quandary, ending with the Dayton Accords in the 1990s. But Holbrooke admits he cannot yell and bully Afghans and Pakistanis the way he did to the Serbs at Dayton, and he can’t bomb them either.

What comes through in the New Yorker article is how much Holbrooke is haunted by America’s failure in Vietnam, in which he served as a young man. Packer's article is entitled: “The Last Mission,” for as Holbrooke, now 68, says:  "Those of us who were born in the thirties and forties are running out of time. A new generation, for whom Vietnam is as long ago and far away as World War I is coming into its own." 

Packer quotes a Holbrooke memo written during the Vietnam War: “Hanoi uses time the way the Russians used terrain before Napoleon’s advance on Moscow, always retreating, losing every battle, but eventually creating conditions in which the enemy can no longer function. ”

That, however, has been the tactic of most weaker powers confronting foreign forces in their land. It is how the Vietnamese fought the French. In that war, the Vietnamese won a battle or two, but the tactic was to always to wear down French resistance at home. In that sense, the Vietnamese Communists won the war in Paris, not Dien Bien Phu, just as their sons defeated the United States in Washington when America grew weary of the war.

It is also the way the Muslim resistance, which was armed by the United States, wore down the Russians until they finally left Afghanistan, and it is the way the Taliban plans to defeat the United States. Insurgents win by not losing, and, as the old cliche goes, we may have the wrist watches, but they have the time.

One of Holbrooke’s obsessions, Packer writes, is increasing American involvement without reducing Afghan capacity. Holbrooke’s answer is to channel resources through the Afghan ministries, rather that giving it to foreign contractors: “But in the absence of any meaningful government in most of Afghanistan’s provinces, there was always a temptation to do things faster and better by going around the Afghans.”

This has long been a complaint of Afghans, that when the Americans did things without their involvement it undermined their authority. Americans working in Afghanistan used to tell me that they didn’t want to see their money going into the pockets of corrupt Afghan officials.

“The dependency track,” is what Holbrooke calls it. "The more help they need the more dependent they get for their help, and then it’s 'Ah, let the Americans do that.' In Vietnam that is exactly what happened."

Packer quotes a Holbrooke associate as saying: “He’s not going to be trapped by his Vietnam ghosts, but he’s going to think about the parallels in proactive, forward-thinking ways.”

One big difference between the struggle in Afghanistan today and Vietnam — and the Balkans, too, for that matter — is, as Holbrooke points out, that in those conflicts there was always someone to talk to, even while you were fighting. That is not true of a shadowy insurgency that has no capital or country of its own.

Holbrooke told Packer that three things could cause America to lose the war: “The Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan, the civilian casualties, and corruption.” Given the deeply flawed election he might also have added later: Illegitimacy on the part of the Afghan government. Even before the election Afghans complained that they had little connection to their government, and that, at least, the Taliban offered justice.

“They heard disputes and delivered swift, if often brutal, verdicts..." Packer writes. “As a result, the Taliban was regaining prestige. Insurgents collected taxes and even set up a commission to hear grievances against their fighters, something that neither the Afghan government nor NATO had done.” 

Holbrooke told Packer that there is “a constant tension in relationships like this one between what the Americans want and what the local officials want. “And we’re not always right about our goals — what we want — and the government we’re supporting is not always right.”

Holbrooke told Packer that his Afghan mission had a "back-to-the-future quality,” and, according to Packer, Holbrooke “couldn’t stop invoking the war of his youth … He mentioned Vietnam in staff meetings in Washington, and he brought it up in a speech to American Embassy personnel…"

Most haunting is a brief note to Packer that Holbrooke scribbled on the back of a napkin. The Vietnam War, he wrote, was “based on a profound misreading, by five presidents and their advisors, of the strategic importance of Vietnam to the U.S.”

Afghanistan is now Obama’s war, and so far he has insisted that Afghanistan is a war of necessity, not choice. But Al Qaeda is now in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and the tragedy of Afghanistan has always been not its strategic value to anybody, but what another power might do there. The British wanted Afghanistan as a buffer between their empire and the Russians, and a century later, that’s why we backed the Afghan insurgents who were fighting Russians. Now it’s Al Qaeda.

But one has to wonder whether Holbrooke would approve of the troop increases Obama’s generals are now asking. For if more and more foreign troops pour into Afghanistan, can the “dependency track” be far behind?

And if America has not been able to train a sufficient Afghan army in almost eight years, will an Afghan army fare any better against their more determined foe than did the Army of South Vietnam? Or will they be seen by their countrymen as American puppets?