Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A hole in the bucket: Holbrooke's read on the AfPak strategy

We may never know the tone or real context of Richard Holbrooke's alleged final words, spoken to his Pakistani surgeon as he was beginning anesthesia: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

Most likely, too, we won't know his final or dominant assessment of the strategy Obama charted in Afghanistan. Perhaps it was something of a kaleidoscope, as most people's would be, shifting with the daily flicker of events. He was by all accounts a man of extraordinarily intense will, with an optimism fed by a refusal to not succeed.

But there is a constant hue to Bob Woodward's portrayal in Obama's Wars of Holbrooke's assessment of the emerging strategy, and the possibility of the U.S. securing stability in Afghanistan: gray-to-black.  Throughout Woodward's exhaustive account of the Obama team's exhausting deliberations from September through November 2009, and once more in retrospect in May 2010, Holbrooke knocks down several core assumptions regarding the rationale, progress to date, and prospects for success of U.S. attempts to stand up the Karzai regime. Below, a sampling.

The Taliban will not harbor al Qaeda (Sept. 13, 2009)
Like Biden, Holbrooke believed that even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them. That be "the single most important intellectual insight of the year," Holbrooke remarked hours after the first meeting. Al Qaeda was much safer in Pakistan. Why go back to Afghanistan, where there were nearly 68,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 from other NATO counties? [sic]...

Astonishingly to Holbrooke, that key insight had neither been in [Bruce] Riedel's report [presented in March '09], nor had it been discussed that Sunday morning [Sept. 13]. Where was the no-holds-barred debate? The president had told them not to bite their tongues. Holbrooke had to bite his because he worked for the secretary of state, who was unsure of what course to recommend. But where were the others? (170)

The Taliban feeds on our presence. (Oct. 9)

The two weakest links were corruption and the Afghan police. "Our presence is the corrupting force," Holbrooke announced. All the contractors for development pay the Taliban for protection and use of the roads, so American and coalition dollars help finance the Taliban. And with more development, higher traffic on roads, and more troops, the Taliban would make more money (225-26).
 There's a hole in the Afghanization bucket  (Oct. 9)

The yearly attrition [for Afghan police] was more than 25 percent, a figure that exceed the number of new recruits. With the recruitment levels McChrystal projected, the size of the police force of roughly 80,000 would actually shrink...
      "It's like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it," Holbrooke said (226).
How's that transfer of responsibility to the Afghans coming along? (May 10, 2010)
Holbrooke, in a bleak mood himself, asked if there was an Afghan example of "clear, hold, build and transfer" actually happening.
     "Not yet," McChrystal said.
Was there a way to actually have a transfer? Holbrooke inquired. For example, in the three-month-old Marja operation involving 15,000 U.S., British and Afghan troops, was there a way to take out, say, one U.S. company made up of just several hundred soldiers and transfer their responsibilities to the Afghans? "It would prove the concept," Holbrooke said. "It would prove we are not trapped."
     "That's a good idea," McChrystal replied.He paused, and thought hard for a long time. "No, we're not ready yet."
     Holbrooke's heart sank. "Transfer" had been a core concept in the president's strategy review going back six months. It was the ticket out. And they couldn't even transfer one company? (353)

Epitaph (hours before Obama's Dec. 1 speech announcing the 30,000-troop surge and timeline)

Biden is happy that Obama has tightly limited the commitment. Petraeus is happy that McChrystal got his 30,000+ troops. 
Perhaps the most pessimistic view came from Richard Holbrooke. "It can't work," he said (333).
Yet for all his energy and all his clear sight of the impossibilities, Holbrooke, in Woodward's telling, did not devise his own way out.  The president "wanted a comprehensive strategy" from Holbrooke's office, according to Woodward [or rather, Woodward's Donilon], not "a list of activities and issues" (211) And, in a judgment not ascribed to any individual: "Holbrooke was heavy on diagnosis but light on solutions" (227).

Biden had his "counterterrorism plus" -- a scaled-back commitment; McChrystal and Petraeus, their full-scale COIN.   Were he the decider, what would Holbrooke have done?

1 comment:

  1. It'll be very hard for United states to find his replacement in this difficult time.