Richard Holbrooke: Was he right about Afghanistan War?

KABUL, Afghanistan — The last words uttered by Richard Holbrooke were, according to family members, a plea to end what he saw as an increasingly unwinnable military engagement.

“You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan,” he told his Pakistani surgeon, as reported in the Washington Post. Holbrooke never recovered from the surgery, his death reported Monday evening.

It is characteristic of this hard-driving, high-octane professional that his final thoughts would be of the task that he had left undone. But in the end Afghanistan defeated even this titan of diplomacy.

Holbrooke’s last post, as the Obama administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will most likely not figure among his finest hours. Long-time friend and colleague Peter Galbraith, who served as ambassador to Croatia while Holbrooke was negotiating an end to the Balkan war, told the BBC Monday evening that the Dayton Accords, signed in 1995 and effectively putting an end to hostilities in the three-year conflict in Yugoslavia, would serve as Holbrooke’s legacy.

Afghanistan, added Galbraith, was a “morass” with no clear solution.

(Read about Holbrooke's legacy in Pakistan, and remembrances of a complicated man.)

Holbrooke faced formidable odds in Afghanistan, and by most accounts his contribution to the effort there was ineffectual. He was too much on the outside of the administration debate, and was resented by many for the high-handed manner and the bullying tactics that earned him the nickname “Bulldozer.” His views were often brushed aside by a policy establishment that had its own agenda, and had little time or patience for his contrarian views.

But the controversy surrounding Holbrooke and his role in Afghanistan was carefully edited out of the narrative on Tuesday, as everyone from President Barack Obama to Afghan President Hamid Karzai rushed to pay tribute to the fallen colossus.

Obama called him “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer and more respected.”

A spokesman for Karzai told the media, "We are saddened by his death, it is a big loss. He had done great services for Afghanistan."

Karzai himself expressed his condolences to the American people.

But most observers acknowledge that Holbrooke was a problematic figure in both Kabul and Washington.

According to White House insiders, Holbrooke was an outspoken critic of Obama’s Afghan strategy, as it was being developed in advance of last year’s West Point speech. The much-discussed policy of a troop surge followed by a hasty withdrawal seemed ill-considered to the veteran diplomat, who cut his foreign policy teeth on the catastrophe of Vietnam.

“It can’t work,” he is reported to have said of the White House plan. Holbrooke was opposed to an escalation of the war without a clear exit strategy, something that he said loudly and repeatedly.

According to “Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward’s detailed account of the debates surrounding Obama’s Afghanistan policy, this earned him the impatience and even the distrust of the White House incumbent.

“Holbrooke believed that [the policy group] had not acknowledged a central truth: The war — or the American role in the war — would not end in military victory,” wrote Woodward. Holbrooke, he added, believed in reconciliation — a genuine outreach to the other side.

Holbrooke was just as unpalatable to the Afghan president, due to a widely publicized but repeatedly downplayed conflict the two men had following Afghanistan’s fraud-plagued presidential elections in 2009.

Holbrooke, according to numerous media reports, as well as the account in Woodward’s book, broached the subject of a runoff in the days following the Aug. 19 ballot. Karzai, who had all but declared victory before the polls closed, completely rejected the possibility of a second round, insisting that the United States was conspiring against him.

Holbrooke did not return to Kabul for several months following the angry meeting with Karzai; the final negotiations on a runoff were conducted by longtime Holbrooke friend and supporter, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Credible rumors said that Holbrooke had been sidelined due to his conflict with the Afghan president, although Holbrooke himself denied this.

But on Afghanistan, as on so many issues throughout the years, Holbrooke may be proved right after all.

His irritation with Karzai is now shared by many, if not most, of the foreign policy establishment. U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry made his views known in a secret cable leaked to the New York Times in January 2010, far in advance of WikiLeaks.

Karzai, according to Eikenberry was not “an adequate strategic partner,” and any plan that depended on improvement in Afghan governance was doomed to failure. He advocated against major troop increases unless and until Afghanistan could demonstrate improved governance.

It echoes, for the most part, views that Holbrooke had been expressing for months inside the White House policy debate.

Perhaps for this reason Eikenberry’s homage to Holbrooke had a particular pathos: “Our efforts in Afghanistan lost a powerful advocate today,” he said in a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Tuesday.

Holbrooke’s views that outreach to the Taliban is a necessity are also becoming conventional wisdom in higher policy circles, although with a great deal of resistance from some of the more conservative policy wonks and government officials.

A group of writers, academics and journalists issued an Open Letter to the President over the weekend, asking Obama to put an end to the long agony of Afghanistan by engaging in genuine negotiation with the Taliban.

Their plea would likely have found favor with Holbrooke, as they reprise many of the points the indefatigable diplomat tried to make in discussions at the White House:

“Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future,” wrote the group, which includes esteemed author Antonio Giustozzi, widely read journalist Ahmed Rashid, policy expert Gilles Dorronsoro and many others.

“With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution … The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.”

The group has come under fire from various circles in Afghanistan and abroad, being attacked as “traitors” by some, while an Afghan website famous for its hostility to the Taliban accused the group of conspiring with Pakistan and the United Kingdom to keep Afghanistan subjugated.

The furor would probably have amused Holbrooke, who thrived on battle.

As a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam he saw the futility of a war with no clear-cut goals and without broad national support. In September of this year, at a State Department conference on the American experience in Southeast Asia, he thought back to those days, in words containing a disturbing resonance for Afghanistan watchers now:

"Our beloved nation sent into battle soldiers without a clear determination of what they could accomplish and they misjudged the stakes,” he said. “And then we couldn't get out … We fought bravely under very difficult conditions. But success was not achievable. Those who advocated more escalation or something called 'staying the course' were advocating something that would have led only to a greater and more costly disaster afterwards."