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Opinion: Weighing Holbrooke's "last mission"

A recent article explores the demons and obsessions dogging Obama's Af-Pak envoy.

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke at the G8 foreign ministers meeting in the Italian northern Adriatic port of Trieste, June 27, 2009. (Nikola Solic/Reuters)

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.