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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Speaker for the dead? Nasr indicts Obama's AfPak policy in Holbrooke's name

Vali Nasr, a former aide to the late Richard Holbrooke when he was Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan, has put the gist of his book-length brief against the Obama administration's conduct of foreign policy in a j'accuse published in Foreign Policy.

In Nasr's narrative, Obama's conduct of war and diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- Holbrooke's bailiwick --  was controlled by a narrow coterie of White House staff. The policy, according to Nasr, was overmilitarized, diplomatically disengaged, driven mainly by domestic political considerations, and undermined by Obama's timeline and swift withdrawal. The wound that drives the whole is Nasr's conviction that his patron, master diplomat Richard Holbrooke, was undercut at every turn and never given a chance to operate.

The heart of the strategic indictment (motive is a separate story) is that the admnistration first slow-walked and then mis-timed and undercut its negotiation with the Taliban, which Holbrooke had urged almost from the start. Here's the gist:

All told, it took more than a year of lobbying inside the administration to get the White House to take the idea [of negotiating with the Taliban] seriously. It was close to 18 months after Rubin wrote his first memo that Clinton could finally publicly endorse diplomacy on behalf of the administration, in a February 2011 speech at the Asia Society.

The Obama administration's approach to reconciliation, however, is not exactly what Holbrooke had in mind for a diplomatic end to the war. Holbrooke thought that the United States would enjoy its strongest leverage if it negotiated with the Taliban when the country had the maximum number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan. He had not favored the Afghanistan surge, but once the troops were there, he thought the president should use the show of force to get to a diplomatic solution.

But that did not happen. The president failed to launch diplomacy and then announced the troop withdrawal in a June 2011 speech, in effect snatching away the leverage that would be needed if diplomacy were to have a chance of success. "If you are leaving, why would the Taliban make a deal with you? How would you make the deal stick? The Taliban will talk to you, but just to get you out faster." That comment we heard from an Arab diplomat was repeated across the region.

Yet it was exactly after announcing the U.S. departure that the administration warmed up to the idea of reconciliation. Talks with the Taliban were not about arranging their surrender, but about hastening America's departure. Concerns about human rights, women's rights, and education were shelved. These were not seen as matters of vital U.S. interest, just noble causes that were too costly and difficult to support -- and definitely not worth fighting an insurgency over.

I suspect that that there's a lot of truth to this.  Smart observers have worried since Obama announced his surge strategy in December 2009: that his timeline made the policy self-cancelling.   From this non-expert news-reader's perspective, the administration's AfPak policy has seemed a balls-up from the start, when it ignored warnings that massive fraud was being prepped in the Afghan elections that undermined Karzai's credibility in August '09.   

But the narrative is undercut, to an extent hard to determine, by Nasr's out-of-control rancor and naked Clinton-camp partisanship. Given that Nasr is an experienced and presumably sophisticated diplomat, it's surprising that he lets his partisan flag fly so openly.

Clinton and Holbrooke are "two incredibly dedicated and talented people." Alas, "At times it appeared the White House was more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right." That was not entirely true regarding Hillary, because she is superwoman: "Time and again, when things seemed to be falling apart, the administration finally turned to Clinton because it knew she was the only person who could save the situation." Holbrooke, just prior to his death, had a miracle cure for the region, which he saved for personal delivery to "the president who did not have time to listen."

In Nasr's telling neither Holbrooke nor Clinton can do any wrong, notwithstanding that they took opposite sides when Obama was considering the military's surge proposal -- Holbrooke concluding that attempting to make Karzai's regime self-sufficient "can't work" (according to Woodward), while Hillary favored going all-in on the military's COIN plan, which Obama ultimately modified. I don't doubt that there was a high level of trust between Holbrooke and Clinton, or that both pressed for more emphasis on diplomacy in AfPak and earlier engagement with the Taliban.  But they can't both have been right all the time.

With regard to Obama's conduct during the exhaustive AfPak policy review in 2009 - -recounted in detail in Woodward's Obama's Wars -- Nasr's verdict strikes me as somewhat self-cancelling:
The amount of time spent seemed absurd. Every time Holbrooke came back from the White House, he would say, "The president has more questions." Frustration was written all over Holbrooke's and Clinton's faces as the process dragged on. Obama was dithering. He was busybodying the national security apparatus by asking for more answers to the same set of questions, each time posed differently.

Holbrooke thought that Obama was not deciding because he disliked the options before him, and that the National Security Council (NSC) was failing the president by not giving him the right options. What Holbrooke omitted from his assessment was that Obama was failing to press the NSC to give him other options.
Woodward's book makes clear that Obama did press the military brass for more options, ultimately creating his own: reduce the number of added troops, impose a hard get-in-get-out timeline, scale back goals. Obama imposed a host of his own conditions and insisted that his top advisers sign on before he approved the policy. Petraeus, according to Woodward, "couldn't believe it. There's not a president in history that's dictated five single-spaced pages in his life" (p. 327). Maybe the terms were the wrong ones; maybe Obama simply hedged the military plan rather than changing its premises.   But he did press pretty relentlessly for "other options."

Nasr also blames the administration for steadily worsening relations with Pakistan, charging that this relationship too was overmilitarized. The drone program, he acknowledges, was effective against al Qaeda, but it undermined relations with Pakistan. He quotes Holbrooke: "Watch them [the CIA] ruin this relationship. And when it is ruined, they are going to say, 'We told you: You can't work with Pakistan!' We never learn." That's probably true -- as is the charge that the Pakistanis did not believe that the US would follow through in Afghanistan and succeed in stabilizing Karzai's government. Hence its attempt to cultivate Taliban factions to give it some measure of control in Afghanistan when the U.S. pulls out. 

But what is Nasr's solution?  Money -- a lot of it:
But if we wanted to change Pakistan, Holbrooke thought, we had to think even bigger -- in terms of a Marshall Plan. After a journalist asked him whether the $5 billion in aid was too much for Pakistan, Holbrooke answered, "Pakistan needs $50 billion, not $5 billion." The White House did not want to hear that -- it meant a fight with Congress and spending political capital to convince the American people. Above all else, it required an audacious foreign-policy gambit for which the Obama administration was simply not ready.

Yet in reality we were spending much more than that on Afghanistan. For every dollar we gave Pakistan in aid, we gave $20 to Afghanistan. That money did not go very far; it was like pouring water into sand. Even General Petraeus understood this. I recall him saying at a Pakistan meeting: "You get what you pay for. We have not paid much for much of anything in Pakistan." In the end, we settled for far more modest assistance: The 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation earmarked $7.5 billion in aid to Pakistan over five years -- the first long-term civilian aid package. It was no Marshall Plan.
Was a U.S. Marshall Plan for Pakistan really feasible? ($50 billion, anyone?) Was failing to go after al Qaeda when Pakistan wouldn't/couldn't? 

I do think it highly likely that Holbrooke envisioned a better overall strategy: a scaled-back military effort, earlier engagement with the Taliban, more restraint in the drone attacks and some of the money pouring into Afghanistan re-channeled as non-military aid to Pakistan. But Nasr doesn't engage the opposite-side problems such a policy would raise. Was negotiation with the Taliban feasible without an effective surge (rather than at the height a surge that wasn't time-stopped -- not Holbrooke's original preference). Was winning Pakistani trust -- or inducing trustworthy behavior on their side -- ever really feasible? Could rejection of courses Nasr favored been motivated by anything but calculation of domestic political advantage?

Nasr complains that James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, meddled ineffectually in Afghan diplomacy. But Jones was  more on the outs with Obama than Holbrooke. The mere fact that there were truf battles does not support Nasr's morally damning charge -- which is really merely asserted --  that the administration cared only about the impact of AfPak policy on U.S. domestic politics. Nasr's first levies this charge against  "the White House" -- his term for an unnamed coterie controlling policy that probably includes Thomas Donilon, Dennis McDonough and Rahm Emanuel -- but in the end, extends it directly to Obama:
It was to court public opinion that Obama first embraced the war in Afghanistan. And when public opinion changed, he was quick to declare victory and call the troops back home. His actions from start to finish were guided by politics, and they played well at home.
That is really the most serious of charges you can make against a president, and no evidence is brought to bear. Even a rock-solid case that Obama's policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan was misguided and ineffectual from start to finish would not prove that charge. It should not be rendered without proof.

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