I received a sad missive from a friend who has been working in Kabul as a civilian teacher on behalf of the U.S aid effort on and off for the last 11 years. A staunch believer in the inevitable triumph of democracy over the Taliban and Afghanistan’s brutal warlordism, her hope, it would seem, is running out.
“I think we have got another 18 months here, maybe less before all hell breaks loose frankly,” she wrote. “And then if all of Kabul is blown up again in internecine conflict, what did we spend billions on?”
It’s a question that I think most people who spent the better part of the last decade thinking and talking and speculating about Afghanistan are clearly avoiding these days. It’s a practical question and it’s an existential one, too. It’s symbolic: after Iraq, Afghanistan was supposed to be the war in which America had a pure mission. Instead it is where America found its superpower status was a Potemkin Village.
The Washington think tank club has been pretty quiet. the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is like that one cheerleader who refuses to give up the spirit even when the team on the field is getting clobbered to death, recently released this report, aptly entitled “Toward a Successful Outcome in Afghanistan,” led by former commander of U.S forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen, Michele Flournoy and Michael O’Hanlon, based on a recent fact finding mission. This likely means the report is how the military that courted these three Washington insiders inside the country wants us to think about Afghanistan: forever on the verge of democracy, and only if we hold out for longer, the 2014 elections go off right, women get integrated into the system, our European allies kick in more money and trainers, the Afghan military can perform without us, etc., will things go off as planned. Where they ever got that poll saying Hamid Karzai enjoys 60 to 70 percent approval ratings is beyond us.
Frankly, if what they say is true, that the Afghan Army is now leading 85 percent of its security missions and responsible for 87 percent of the population’s security — 312 out of 400 districts countrywide — then that is a good thing, at least American blood and treasure counts for something. But it would be good to get an independent assessment. After 11 years of the Pentagon spin machine at work, forgive us for wanting a second opinion. Plus, one of the key recommendations to jump out of the CNAS report is to leave behind a “bridging force” of “several thousand” beyond the already reported “enduring force” (estimated 8,000- to 12,000 NATO troops) for “two to three years after 2014… to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations forces and certain other enablers in medical realms, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection.” So what really goes on over there we can’t say with any conviction.
We do know, outside of the Beltway Bubble, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to smile at (even if, as CNAS suggests, the “good news” is not getting through the Western media). The headlines just aren’t good. I opened the paper yesterday to one blaring the worst of tragedies: “Suicide blast kills 10 Afghan children,” plus, the subhead noted, two NATO troops and an Afghan police officer. The children had just been dismissed from school for lunch and were in the way of an attack on a coalition convoy. At the same time, a land mine claimed the lives of seven Afghan civilians – four women, two children and their driver – after driving home from a day of collecting fire wood in the Hills.
This week, the Red Cross was forced to scale back its own operations after a brazen attack in which a staffer was killed, as well two other people and an Afghan guard, at their headquarters in Jalalabad. Other international staff members had to be rescued as the attackers went on a rampage, according to reports.
Meanwhile, the Army announced Tuesday that two U.S soldiers, ages 20 and 23, were killed by an IED while serving in Tsamkani, Afghanistan. While tens of thousands of their counterparts will be coming home from college this month, they’ll be coming home in a box. That brings the total to 2,235 U. S killed since the war began.
They say America is war-weary and it is. For good reason. There seems to be no good answers. Leaving the country to the Taliban seems to be a cruel way to go – we are already hearing that the number of attacks on girls’ schools is increasing. And did you hear more women in Afghanistan are in prison for “moral crimes” now than at any point since the Taliban was kicked out of Kabul 11 years ago? The old warlords are eager to re-impose their own brutal control, too. Yet leaving U.S Special Forces in the country to shadow local Afghan security forces in counter-terror operations seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Protests again erupted in Wardak this week with charges that U.S Special Forces played a hand in disappearing and torturing local young men to death, a charge flatly denied by American officials.
There are pockets of hope, however. The front page of The Washington Post Monday featured Farhad Akbari, 33, who in revenge of the death of his mother by the Taliban, has raised a local vigilante force to keep them out of Kolangar, “a quiet farming region” in Logar province. This local milita has kicked the Taliban out of a number of local hamlets and it doesn’t work with the Americans, which might be their secret.
Of course, the Americans don’t believe so much in small crusades, do they? My aforementioned friend felt she was part of something much bigger and to hear her angst about the failure of the endeavor is a blow. I’ll take her view from Kabul over the think tankers every time.
Yesterday would have been uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s 72nd birthday. He died December 13, 2010 while on the job as our top envoy to Afghanistan, and one can’t help thinking that whatever 1960’s idealism still existed in terms of making that country a better place, died with him. At least symbolically.
That is not to say that Richard “bulldozer” Holbrooke wasn’t a strident advocate for the use of military force — he was for sure, and I believe it was only to his and our ultimate detriment. But unlike his neoconservative cohorts in Washington, Holbrooke believed in starting wars (Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Iraq) as a matter of humanitarian intervention, not merely for “securing the realm” or for preserving “western interests.” That is not to say his positions on those wars were any better than those of his neocon peers, it’s merely a distinction, one being that humanitarian interventionists like Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton actually believed American power could transform societies. Neoconservatives, on the other hand, have shown time and again that while they are quite good at breaking things (and regimes), putting Humpty Dumpty back together again was never high on the priority list.
I raise the spirit of Richard Holbrooke now because I heard an old clip of him speaking on P.O.T.U.S Radio on Wednesday, in tribute to his birthday. It referred to the day in 2009 he was named special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there were a number of VIPs there to share in what was probably his last true moment in the sun. The radio spot tracked his Associated Press obituary, which noted his early service as a provincial representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Vietnam and then as an aide to two U.S. ambassadors in Saigon during the Vietnam War:
Holbrooke spotted an old friend in the audience, John Negroponte, his one-time roommate in Saigon (the former South Vietnamese capital now called Ho Chi Minh City) who later was the first director of national intelligence and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
“We remember those days well, and I hope we will produce a better outcome this time,” Holbrooke said.
This seems so sad, veering into Shakespearean territory. Here is man who spent his entire life grooming to be in a position to produce “a better outcome” than Vietnam, and then he helps, in essence, to duplicate it, by supporting a military invasion that ripped the fabric of Iraqi society apart and turned nearly every religious and ethnic group against us at some point during the last 10 years . The U.S spent trillions and strained its powerful military and sent millions of Iraqis fleeing — and to what end?
By the time the Bush Administration was on its way out and Holbrooke could have put his diplomatic skills to the test for a Democrat in Afghanistan, the world had unfortunately moved on. The military was everything, not just a means to getting men like Holbrooke to the negotiating table. The new president seemed happy to keep the military on this course, whether that was to hell in a hand basket didn’t appear to matter, as long as the brass got blamed and some kind of deadline for withdrawal could be achieved.
So, after a voluminous career that stretched back to the Kennedy Administration, Holbrooke found himself patronized and later ignored by the young whippersnapper President, who never seemed to let him flex his legendary skills to get the job done for “Af-Pak” the way he had presumably did for the Balkans. Afghan President Karzai appeared to hate him, preferring military men like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had gobs of fun at Holbrooke’s expense in 2010, right in front of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. McChrystal lost his job because of it, but Holbrooke looked very much the weaker man throughout the entire episode.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Holbrooke’s own ego didn’t do him any favors (more than once being called a ‘bull in a china shop’), making him as many enemies as friends during his 2009-2010 stint, one thing is clear: the military was (and remains) in control of the entire war and foreign policy effort in Af-Pak. The State Department as Holbrooke had known it was and is a shell of its former self — strangled by the petty bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom, subservient to the military mission, always begging for scraps at the trough.
And the military was — and is — not negotiating. In fact, “negotiation” and “diplomacy” seem like quaint terms these days, right behind “Geneva Convention” and “law of war.” Depending on the “deal” the Obama Administration makes with Karzai for post-2014 military relations, the U.S could likely leave Afghanistan the same way it left Iraq, a country on the brink of disaster.
Holbrooke seems to have sensed this was coming down the road, perhaps staring up at the future from his diminished perch had made him see things more clearly. James Mann, who wrote extensively about Holbrooke for his book The Obamians in 2012, quotes Holbrook’s wife, Katy Marton:
“He thought that this (Afghanistan) could become Obama’s Vietnam,” she said. “Some of the conversations in the Situation Room reminded him of conversations in the Johnson White House. When he raised that, Obama didn’t want to hear it.”
There was even a question over his last words, the first reports being that he told his doctor “to stop this war.” The context in which he said this has been in dispute (his doctor says it was made in “painful banter” as he awaited the surgery from which he never emerged, alive).
It was clear that the humiliation, his isolation, the failure of any way forward in Afghanistan had taken its toll, however, and was foremost on his mind when he collapsed. According to Mann’s well documented account:
On Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, Richard Holbrooke played tennis on Long Island with Bill Drozdiak, the president of the American Council on Germany, a former foreign correspondent who became friendly with Holbrooke when both were living in Europe. They played for about an hour. Drozdiak thought Holbrooke seemed unusually pale, pudgy and out of shape, as if he’d been working too hard.
Afterward, they sat and talked. Holbrooke said he was in despair over his role in the administration. He simply could not establish a relationship with Obama, Holbrooke said. The president seemed remote and cold-blooded, at least in Holbrooke’s presence. And, as if that weren’t enough, Holbrooke’s problem wasn’t just with Obama: Holbrooke thought many in the White House were against him …
The following Friday, Holbrooke was at a meeting in Hillary Clinton’s State Department office when he suddenly became flushed and stricken with pain. He was taken to the State Department medical office, but collapsed and went by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital. He died there three days later of a ruptured aorta.
What would Holbrooke say today, now that his idea of “humanitarian intervention” has been completely discarded in favor of targeted killing, covert “dirty” wars and yes, a relatively low urgency for the humans themselves. Would he justify it, especially if he were given a prestigious inside view? Should he own it, considering that he and his “muscular Democrats” had set the stage for this evolution in the 1990’s, and had supported Obama’s tough “counter-terrorism” approaches from the beginning?
Daniel Ellsberg suggested in this interesting eulogy after Holbrooke’s death in 2010, that for as idealistic as Holbrooke was, his career came first. Perhaps the daily soul sacrifice working in the Obama Administration — for the scraps of condescension he got in return — was too much for the man. He must have known that the war enterprise was as dirty as it was doomed to failure, but he was committed to defending it nonetheless.
But we will never really know. We can safely say however, that this isn’t exactly the legacy Richard Holbrooke wanted to leave behind. Or this. Or this. In fact, it’s probably worse than he would have imagined.