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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More Unholy Thoughts on Afghanistan

George Packer’s recent profile of Richard Holbrooke in the New Yorker gives an unsettling impression of a man running fast on a treadmill. For all of his freneticism, it’s not clear what Mr. Holbrooke and his large staff is meant to be doing besides “saving” Afghanistan and pacifying nervous people in Pakistan. If so, he is being badly underutilized.

At the risk of sounding repetitious, Talleyrand is anxious to know when the pieces of the story will begin to fit together. He appreciates Obama’s caution and deliberateness. But things are moving quickly on the ground. Critical fence sitters are choosing sides. Meanwhile he also wonders if the interventionists don’t have the whole story backwards.

Namely, debating how much or how little force and influence it will take to put a good face on the situation is bound to be futile if the whole question is approached solely from the inside out. There will always be too little if one’s standard is a functioning state minus a Taliban presence. Mr. Holbrooke surely knows this and doesn’t need to show the empathetic flag in any more tiny villages to make the contrary but implausible point. Nobody believes that Afghanistan’s (or Pakistan’s) problems will be solved with perfectly targeted aid programs. It’s not America’s job to build stable order in this place from the ground up. That is asking for a whole lot of trouble. Dashed expectations are only the beginning.

Heavy hitters like Holbrooke should be used to instil order from the outside in. This means doing what he’s good at: building a coalition; manipulating rivalries; bashing heads when need be; and isolating the holdouts until they agree to play ball by the majority’s rules. So far, Holbrooke appears to be doing all of this in reverse order with little to show for it, unsurprisingly.

To be a bit more specific: the US should use its position on the ground to constitute (or re-constitute) a strong alliance of non-Pushtun forces: Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen et al, with a few token Pushtuns thrown in, if possible. If this means getting behind Dr. Abdullah more vociferously for short term tactical reasons, then so be it. Then it could appear to defer more to Pakistan in managing its Pushtun allies in Afghanistan while giving Pakistan a greater incentive to do so seriously. Pakistan should be only too happy to assume the burden. If the beneficiaries are distasteful, so be it: so long as they don’t threaten US interests (and go on to serve them) and help to bring order to the country, then nobody ought to complain. At least nobody who isn’t willing to pay the price in bodies and treasure for the indefinitely long occupation of the country, which is the only alternative to this besides abandonment.

For the US to play referee among Pushtun contenders while at the same time putting fires out all over the place seems to be the wrong role. This squanders, dissipates and demeans American leverage. It’s time to think wholesale, not retail in Afghanistan.

It has been suggested that Obama got his appointments backwards: the big bully Holbrooke should have been unleashed on Bibi Netanyahu et al while the patient and diplomatic George Mitchell should have been sent to make nice in Pushtunistan. This is not necessarily so. But Holbrooke needs to change the rules of the game in his assigned bailiwick. His bosses need to give him the authority to do so. Or else Packer’s implied prediction -- with constant reference to Vietnam -- will likely come true: Holbrooke’s long career will end the same way it began.  


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