With great anticipation, I trucked over to the posh St. Regis Hotel, just north of the White House, to see Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his team at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress. I shouldn’t have bothered.
The weird thing about the event is that in the room were literally hundreds of the Washington foreign policy elite, current and former officials, people with lots of experience in the Middle East and South Asia, and, of course, journalists, too. And Holbrooke brought with him literally his entire team, minus a few who couldn’t be there: top regional experts such as Barnett Rubin and Vali Nasr, and about a dozen other members of Holbrooke’s Af-Pak task force. But the session was boring, pedestrian, and so mind-numbingly simplistic that it seemed like Holbooke and Co. were talking to third graders.
And their goal was to convince us that the “civilians” involved in the Thirty Years’ War in Afghanistan can rebuild that shattered nation from the ground up. They didn’t convince me.
The ten members of the Holbrooke team on the stage spoke for about two minutes each, giving them time to spout a few platitudes and pass the mike. Not a soul ventured into controversy. No one made news, or said anything newsworthy. Halfway through, it was clear that Holbooke had organized this event solely for the bank of TV cameras arrayed in the back of the room, to provide a visual demonstration of the sheer brilliance of his high-wattage staff.
During the truncated Q&A segment, I asked Holbrooke about the US political clock, and whether he thought he’d be able to demonstrate any success before American public opinion turned against the war. His response, from my notes:
“We all feel the impatience of the American public and the Congress, which legitimately want to see progress in Afghanistan. That’s why we’ve been reaching out. …. So far, at least, people seem to understand. We can’t make the investments we’ve been talking about today without demonstrating progress. … We have to produce results.”
How soon? Holbrooke didn’t say.
During the 90-minute presentation, Holbrooke and Co. mostly avoided the military questions — the major general on him team was a no-show at the St. Regis — and instead they concentrated almost exclusively on the civilian, nation-building aspects of US Afghanistan policy. That’s controversial, too, of course, since it isn’t at all clear that either US public opinion or Congress is willing to sustain a twenty- to thirty-year nation-building effort in Afghanistan. But the Holbrooke team focused on developing Afghan agriculture, building civil society, USAID programs, creating a public health system, and so on. My guess: once it’s clear that Al Qaeda isn’t going to attack us from Afghanistan anymore, the US is outta there, and Afghanistan might as well be eastern Congo.