'Giant' Holbrooke Failed on Afghan War
President Barack Obama hailed Richard Holbrooke, who died Monday, as “one of the giants of American foreign policy.” The President’s kudos reflected the Establishment gravitas that Holbrooke, the special envoy overseeing U.S. policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, had acquired in his long career — fact and reason to the contrary.
Apologies to those who think it is boorish to speak in anything but the most glowing terms of dead “giants.” In this case, however, the stakes are so high that it will dishonor all those at risk, if we yield to convenient convention.
There will be many more dead and wounded in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the time you read this. Sadly, Holbrooke is one of the Establishment “giants” responsible.
The esteemed Holbrooke, who died from a ruptured aorta at the age of 69, has already garnered much praise and attention. Do those to be killed and wounded today in “Af-Pak” -- many much closer to the beginning of their lives -- also merit some mention?
To paraphrase what Arthur Miller says of his simple salesman, such people can be just as exhausted — just as dead — as giants. The “small” must not be allowed to fall into the grave like old dogs. Attention, attention must finally be paid.
“Bulldozers” (the Establishment’s admiring word for bullies and one of Holbrooke’s favorite nicknames) must not be allowed to push dirt onto those graves and cover them up, as though they do not matter.
The “giant” term also recalls images from the past — ironic ones. On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon justified invading Cambodia with these words:
“If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
With all the drama he could muster, Nixon warned, “It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight. The question all Americans must ask and answer tonight is this: Does the richest and strongest nation in the history of the world have the character to meet a direct challenge by a group which rejects every effort to win a just peace?”
And so the American “bulldozer” invaded Cambodia. And we know how that turned out. Nixon failed to defeat the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong but did destabilize Cambodia, opening the door for a victory several years later by the ruthless Khmer Rouge.
After Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, as massive anti-war protests swept across the United States, his image of a powerful giant faded into a pitiable Gulliver, tied down into helplessness by millions of “small” Vietnamese and “small” Americans, too. It is a safe bet that the Afghans are now collecting the rope needed for a similar feat.
Witness to a Debacle
Richard Holbrooke should have had an even clearer recollection of the Vietnam debacle than most Americans. He watched much of it unfold firsthand but apparently never protested the folly, at least not strenuously enough to damage his career advancement.
Holbrooke was a history major at Brown in April 1961, when President John Kennedy received a fateful warning from Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The then-retired general, who had commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific during World War II and battled the Chinese in the Korean War, warned Kennedy: "Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined."
When younger active-duty military commanders suggested that cowardice was behind Kennedy’s decision to pursue negotiations rather than send reinforcements into a civil war in Laos, the young President would tell them to go convince Gen. MacArthur first.
Kennedy's top military adviser, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, said later that MacArthur's statement made a "hell of an impression on the President.”
Over the next several years, Holbrooke found himself witness to the wisdom of MacArthur’s advice. From 1963 to 1966, Holbrooke worked in Vietnam as a rising young diplomat assigned first to the rural Pacification Program, a key component in the war’s counterinsurgency strategy, and then to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
Next, Holbrooke was summoned to Washington to work on a special White House team headed by a veteran of the infamous Phoenix Program that sought to terrorize and “neutralize” South Vietnamese Communist leaders.
In 1968, Holbrooke was assigned to the peace talks in Paris where special envoy Averill Harriman represented a chastened President Johnson in seeking a negotiated end to the war (only for Johnson to discover in October 1968 that Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign had sabotaged those talks by persuading South Vietnam’s President Nguyen van Thieu to boycott in exchange for promises of a better deal.)
After narrowly winning the presidency, Nixon continued the war, even expanding it into Cambodia, but to no avail. In 1973, the U.S. “giant” settled for terms that had been available in 1968 and then watched its South Vietnamese allies collapse in 1975.
Failure to Learn
But neither those direct experiences nor his studies in history seemed to have informed Holbrooke’s judgment regarding the limits of a giant’s powers.
It would have been good if one of Holbrooke’s professors at Brown had suggested he read a little Kipling:
It is not wise for the Christian white
To hustle the Asian brown;
For the Christian riles
And the Asian smiles
And weareth the Christian down.
At the end of the fight
Lies a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased;
And the epitaph drear,
A fool lies here,
Who tried to hustle the East.
Despite the disastrous outcomes from his early endeavors, Holbrooke found that he had earned a place in the Washington Establishment, as an operative who would get his hands dirty on the seamier side of international affairs.
Holbrooke became the Democrats’ go-to diplomat for particularly messy conflicts, such as the Balkan wars of the 1990s, situations where a strong moral compass was viewed as something of a disqualifier. Holbrooke was counted on to bulldoze through and over any ethical qualms to achieve what Washington wanted.
Fast forward to the first weeks of the Obama administration.
With the arrival of a new Democratic president, we see Holbrooke waiting in the wings for a senior diplomatic position as something to which he felt entitled. And President Obama came through just two days after taking office by naming Holbrooke special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak).
However, even assuming that Holbrooke had learned lessons from his Vietnam experiences, he didn’t show it during Obama’s fateful deliberations in his first weeks in office, as the President threw 21,000 more troops into Afghanistan to shore up a collapsing military strategy, rather than start thinking about a coherent exit plan.
Instead, Holbrooke focused on building a team of hard-nosed experts to help him do whatever he was supposed to do regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan (as distinct from what the U.S. ambassadors and military commanders were already doing).
By the summer of 2009, it had become painfully obvious that Holbrooke, with all his experience, had failed to help clarify the ambiguity surrounding the Afghan mission.
As Gen. Stanley McChrystal got ready to request thousands more troops for the mission, there still wasn’t even a reasonable measuring stick for gauging progress on the vague policy goal: “to defeat, destroy, dismantle al-Qaeda.”
The Center for American Progress, led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, had surprised many, including me, by endorsing Obama’s non-strategy of throwing more troops into the fray in Afghanistan (a “smart” endorsement on the Center’s part, if it wanted to safeguard its place at Obama’s table).
In any case, on Aug. 12, 2009, with considerable fanfare, Podesta’s Center hosted Holbrooke and asked him to address the policy objectives in Afghanistan and how he intended to measure success toward them.
Holbrooke bragged that he had completed amassing “the best team,” but he shed little light on what the war’s end game was to be and which plays should be called to get there. To his credit, Podesta made clear what he had hoped to achieve at the meeting; namely, a “focus on … our objectives in Afghanistan and how we measure progress.”
Holbrooke: “We know the difference with input and output, and what you are seeing here is input. The payoff is still to come. We have to produce results and we understand that … and we’re not here today to tell you we’re winning or we’re losing. We’re not here today to say we’re optimistic or pessimistic.”
Podesta: “How do you define clear objectives of what you’re trying to succeed as outputs with the inputs that you just talked about?”
Holbrooke: “A very key question, John, which you’re alluding to is, of course, if our objective is to defeat, destroy, dismantle al-Qaeda, and they’re primarily in Pakistan, why are we doing so much in Afghanistan? … If you abandon the struggle in Afghanistan, you will suffer against al-Qaeda as well. But we have to be clear on what our national interests are here …
“The specific goal you ask, John, — it is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we’ll know it when we see it.”
That adage, first used by Justice Potter Stewart a half-century ago with respect to pornography, also found favor among neo-conservatives and their supporters in Washington during George W. Bush's presidency. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz employed it in December 2002, just three months before the U.S.-U.K. attack on Iraq.
Unable to come up with any specific evidence of a WMD program in Iraq, but determined to rebut Saddam Hussein’s claims that he had none, Wolfowitz quipped, “It’s like the judge said about pornography. I can’t define it, but I will know it when I see it.”
The phrase always earned a knowing chuckle around the power tables of Washington, but it amounted to punting – a shanked punt at that – when justifying the dispatch of American soldiers into bloody conflicts.
Given Holbrooke’s inability to explain a clear path toward success in Afghanistan, it should have come as no surprise when former Marine Corps captain and State Department official Matthew Hoh resigned in September 2009. Hoh explained that he had “lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States presence in Afghanistan … why, and to what end?”
Hoh added, “many Afghans … are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there … the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.”
It was an articulate critique, with which former Vietnam-era diplomat Holbrooke himself stated that he largely agreed.
But don’t be upset if you are confused over why Holbrooke would plow ahead with a policy that he knew to be severely flawed. After all, that had been the essence of his diplomatic “service” for nearly five decades.
I imagine Matthew Hoh will be joining many of us in pain amid all the encomia to be showered on Richard Holbrooke in the days ahead. But the greatest tragedy may be that he could have made a difference – and chose not to.
And, in the curious standards of Official Washington, Holbrooke’s circumspection and silence – even as countless “small” people get wounded and killed – is cause for lionizing him in death.
In a final irony – as Holbrooke is laid to rest – the results of a military-dominated White House review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is to be announced this week with the expectation that the review will simply reaffirm the goal to “defeat, destroy, dismantle” the 50 or so al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan.
I shall be surprised if there emerges any sensible, identifiable strategy with metrics to assess success or failure.
And the American troops? It is hard to escape the conclusion that Holbrooke shared the view of Henry Kissinger, another devotee of Realpolitik diplomacy who had little regard for the humanity and value of common soldiers.
In the book Kiss the Boys Goodbye: How the United States Betrayed its Own POWs in Vietnam, Kissinger is quoted as saying: “Military men are just dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”
So, amid the eulogies for Holbrooke, it may be time to insist that – regarding the “small” people, not just the “giants” – attention must finally be paid.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He is a former Army infantry/intelligence officer and CIA analyst, and serves on the Standing Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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