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.
John Podesta, the event’s host and president of the Center for American Progress, asked the key question at the start: what are US objectives in the war and how are they defined? And he didn’t get a good answer. President Obama has stated that the objective is to defeat and destroy Al Qaeda, but Holbrooke leap-frogged from that objective to the much broader one of defeating “the Talibans,” and he didn’t explain at all why, if America’s goal is to crush Al Qaeda, we have to spend decades rebuilding the entire country. The prevailing view, it seems, is that we have to ensure that both Afghanistan and the neighboring provinces of Pakistan (the tribal areas, or FATA, and Baluchistan) are yanked by the Yanks into the 21st century. If so, that could take until the 22nd century.
Several members of the team, including counterinsurgency expert Vikram Singh, explained that we and the Afghans may have to build an entire media and communications system that can reach down into remote Afghan villages to bring an anti-Taliban message. He said that in FATA there are 150 pro-Taliban pirate radio stations, and that in large parts of Afghanistan and in FATA there is no cell phone service. True enough, I suppose, but does the mission of defeating Al Qaeda include building a entire telecommunications system in one of the poorest areas in the world. I sat there imagining discussions in Holbrooke’s team about bringing broadband Internet to Waziristan and poppy-rich Helmand province.
Holbooke and Co. did make the point that they’ve put an end to the useless eradication program aimed at halting poppy farming. Instead, they’re focused on capturing on killing high-value drag traffickers and in helping poppy farmers grow substitute crops. Lately, I’ve been watching HBO’s “The Wire” on DVD, with its devastating account of how corruption, stupidity, and bad police flail away at cocaine traffic in Baltimore, and I imagined Jimmy McNulty busting Afghan drug lords. Maybe, if Holbrooke and Co. had spent the whole 90 minutes discussing the War on Drugs in Afghanistan, they might have had time to go into enough detail to convince me that they have a prayer. But my feeling is: Forget it! It’s a joke.
Listening to Holbrooke and Co., I couldn’t help thinking that the brutalized, raped and genocide-stricken people of Rwanda and eastern Congo must be wishing that they had an Osama bin Laden of their own hiding in the central African jungles, so another US special envoy would assemble a team of nation-builders and scramble up $4 billion a month to rebuild Africa, too. It’s not that we can’t afford it: we can. A nation that spends $1 trillion here and there to bail out criminal banks ought to be able to find a few tens of billions a month to make sure that people in the Fourth World have vaccinations, clean drinking water, decent schools, good roads, free health clinics, and the like.
But I sure don’t understand why the Pentagon needs to involved.