2009.09.28: George Packer writes: Richard Holbrooke's plan to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan
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2009.09.28: George Packer writes: Richard Holbrooke's plan to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan
George Packer writes: Richard Holbrooke's plan to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan
The Americans in Wardak showed a sophistication about the fight which had come from repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Counter-insurgency, which just three years ago was discussed by a handful of dissident Army officers and outside experts, is now the lingua franca of American combat units. They talked about "population security" and "governance" and "economic development," as if they were experts from an aid agency. They had learned enough to avoid using the term "Taliban," which oversimplified an enemy composed of disparate elements, including more criminals and unemployed youths than Islamist ideologues. But these lessons had come very late. Sarah Chayes, a former reporter who founded a sustainable-development coöperative in Kandahar, and who is now an adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, told me, "What the Afghans expected of us was to help create a decent government. Instead, we gave them warlords, because we were focussed on counterterrorism." Zeroing in on killing the enemy, with grossly insufficient troops on the ground, had led directly to the overuse of air strikes and the killing of civilians. Meanwhile, every time an Afghan encountered the government, he was hurt by it-abused, asked for a bribe, hauled off to jail without evidence. At least the Taliban offered justice; they heard disputes and delivered swift, if often brutal, verdicts, such as confinement in a box or death. As a result, the Taliban was regaining prestige. Insurgents collected taxes and even set up a commission to hear grievances against their fighters, something that neither the Afghan government nor NATO had done.
Journalist George Packer served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo. Special Envoy Richard Holbrook served as Peace Corps Country director for Morocco in the 1970s.
George Packer writes: Richard Holbrooke's plan to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan
The Last Mission
Richard Holbrooke's plan to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan.
by George Packer September 28, 2009
In late May, I spent a few days with a U.S. Army unit in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul. There had been rain, and the valleys between the brown mountains were green with apricot and apple orchards. Last year, Wardak-half an hour's drive from the capital-had almost fallen under Taliban control, and the highway that connects Kabul to Kandahar had been all but shut down, with dozens of produce trucks burned. Seven drivers were beheaded. There had been only a hundred and fifty American soldiers in a province of half a million people. This past February, fifteen hundred soldiers, originally scheduled to deploy to Iraq, arrived in Wardak, five months ahead of the additional troops authorized by Obama. They set up combat outposts in each district, up the road from the village bazaars. By May, the highway had become secure, and farmers could transport their goods to Kabul. A number of villagers said that they felt safer than a year ago, but shadowy armed men continued to intimidate anyone coöperating with the government. "Seven years of unfulfilled promises," an American battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kimo Gallahue, said. "For the first time, we're doing counter-insurgency here." Another officer, Major Kit Parker, said, "If we can't get Wardak right, nothing else is going to fly."
The Americans in Wardak showed a sophistication about the fight which had come from repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Counter-insurgency, which just three years ago was discussed by a handful of dissident Army officers and outside experts, is now the lingua franca of American combat units. They talked about "population security" and "governance" and "economic development," as if they were experts from an aid agency. They had learned enough to avoid using the term "Taliban," which oversimplified an enemy composed of disparate elements, including more criminals and unemployed youths than Islamist ideologues.
But these lessons had come very late. Sarah Chayes, a former reporter who founded a sustainable-development coöperative in Kandahar, and who is now an adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, told me, "What the Afghans expected of us was to help create a decent government. Instead, we gave them warlords, because we were focussed on counterterrorism." Zeroing in on killing the enemy, with grossly insufficient troops on the ground, had led directly to the overuse of air strikes and the killing of civilians.
Meanwhile, every time an Afghan encountered the government, he was hurt by it-abused, asked for a bribe, hauled off to jail without evidence. At least the Taliban offered justice; they heard disputes and delivered swift, if often brutal, verdicts, such as confinement in a box or death. As a result, the Taliban was regaining prestige. Insurgents collected taxes and even set up a commission to hear grievances against their fighters, something that neither the Afghan government nor NATO had done.
"The biggest complaint you hear from Afghan folks is there's no connection to the government," said Captain Jason Adler, a company commander in a district of Wardak called Sayed Abad, where there was still a fair amount of fighting. (The day I arrived at the combat outpost, the company was holding a memorial service for two sergeants who had just been killed in an ambush.) I walked down from the American base to the bazaar in the midday sun and sat with a dozen Afghan men gathered under a thatch shelter. Grievances began pouring out.
"If you go to government officials, they just put money in their pockets," a watermelon seller said. "They have their properties in Dubai-they don't care about the poor."
A mechanic, in a long, greasy shirt, said, "Most of our police, they're no good, they have drug problems. We want the police to take responsibility and bring peace for us. We don't want police who are there to take money." He got up to return to work. Most of the men under the shelter were jobless. These men had little affection for the Taliban, but they had almost no enthusiasm for the upcoming Presidential election, and no good words for any of the candidates, including President Karzai.
"Our government is all corrupt," an old man in a turban said. "We need a system to give more money to the poor. When the Taliban were in power, there was peace, there wasn't one gunshot at that time. They didn't help the poor, but there was peace. The last eight years, we've had nothing."
Holbrooke once told me that three things could cause America to lose the war: the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan, civilian casualties, and corruption. The Afghan government was so crooked that NATO considered it as much of a threat to success as the Taliban. Members of Holbrooke's team heard that, after the election, Karzai might replace Governor Mangal, who had a reputation for being clean. They heard that the former police chief of Helmand, a notorious drug dealer, was one of Karzai's main fund-raisers. And they heard that Karzai's aides sometimes intervened to release a detainee who had ties to Karzai's brother. Holbrooke was debating how to raise such concerns when he met with Karzai, in Kabul, and I had the sense that he had not yet figured out his strategy.
Holbrooke's op-eds in the Post had been critical of Karzai, and a former U.S. official familiar with Afghan politics described his manner at their meetings earlier this year as "imperial and directive." Karzai had begun to fear that the new American Administration wanted to get rid of him-last year, during a lunch in Kabul, Joe Biden threw down his napkin and walked out-and he met Holbrooke's pressure with defiance. "Holbrooke's approach backfired," the former official said. "He went out there and antagonized him first, without having a plan of how you would get rid of Karzai."
Holbrooke had inherited a major problem: Afghanistan's elections were constitutionally scheduled to take place between one and two months before Karzai's term ended, on May 22nd. But the Afghan election commission had decided to delay them until August, in order to have more time to prepare. Who would be President in the interim? The Obama Administration, feeling that stability was paramount, believed that Karzai should stay in office. Holbrooke invoked the political chaos in South Vietnam that followed the 1963 overthrow of President Diem by an American-backed coup. The American political strategy in Afghanistan was essentially on hold until after the elections, and Holbrooke seemed disinclined to continue to press Karzai to reform his government.
A NATO official with a lot of experience in Afghanistan told me that Holbrooke's day-to-day activities-so frantic that some Americans concluded he couldn't possibly keep track of everything he was doing-were beside the point. The agriculture programs and the rest of it were "ancillary" to the main problem, which was the government of Afghanistan: "Nothing else matters if you don't get this right." The NATO official worried that Holbrooke, instead of leaning hard on the Karzai government, might see Karzai as a necessary conduit for cutting a deal with the Taliban that would allow the Americans to leave. "Holbrooke is fundamentally not a nation-builder, he's a dealmaker," the official said. "But this is not something you can bargain your way out of."
Holbrooke, of course, had spent his youth trying to reform the government of South Vietnam and ended up seeking a negotiated solution. He had asked Ambassador Tim Carney, another Vietnam hand, to run the election-monitoring unit at the Embassy in Kabul. Over dinner and Scotch in the cafeteria, Carney told me, "You've got to go back to Vietnam, though this is not something Richard will say. He understands that we get into relationships that give the leaders of countries the strength of their weakness." The corrupt rulers of countries where the U.S. is at war can simply dare the Americans to end their support. "We can collapse the whole thing, but that's all we can do," Carney said. "What other leverage do we have?"
Burt Field, an Air Force major general and Holbrooke's military adviser, was beginning to question the military's model of how to fight the Taliban. He said that the Americans were telling the Afghans, "We're going to keep the Taliban off your back and connect you to your government-and that's counter-insurgency." But, Field went on, "it's premised on the fact that the government wants to be able to provide those key services. What if the premise is false?"
In Kabul, Holbrooke and Karzai faced off over lunch at a long banquet table in the Presidential palace, each man flanked by his advisers. Karzai, dressed in a white tunic and a black jacket, acted theatrically, calling out to aides for information in a stage voice, then expressing shock when they predicted lower voter turnout because of violence in Pashtun areas, where he drew most of his support.
"You're worried about the effect on the Pashtun people," Holbrooke said.
"And the aftermath of the elections. The effect on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. We've done an analysis."
Karzai's intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, explained that low turnout would give the Taliban a propaganda victory. "That's the main point," Karzai cut in. "They will claim control of the people."
"And the territory," Saleh added.
"And the territory."
Holbrooke sensed where this was leading, and he said, "Let's be clear-the elections will take place on August 20th." Karzai hastened to agree.
Holbrooke then chided him: "Wherever our troops have driven out the Taliban in Helmand over the last few weeks, there has been no effort to bring in administrative structures of your government."
"Has this been done in coördination with our government?" Karzai asked, chewing nervously, his eyes shifting everywhere except to Holbrooke's face.
"This is a huge issue for you," Holbrooke said, looking hard at Karzai. "I urge you to sit down with NATO and the Embassy to work on a quick-reaction administrative effort to bring to the districts health, schools, and, above all, justice."
The subject of corruption didn't come up at the lunch, and when he and Karzai met privately, Holbrooke told me, he didn't explicitly address drug money. On the flight home, I asked Holbrooke how he could turn America's enormous investment in Afghanistan into leverage. Could he threaten to cut back on aid?
He waved off the idea. "That really hurts Karzai."
Holbrooke paused for a full ten seconds. "Well, it's a constant tension in relationships like this one between what the Americans want and what the local officials want," he said. "And we're not always right about our goals-what we want-and the government we're supporting is not always right."
So, I asked Holbrooke, you can't yell at Karzai and Zardari the way you yelled at Milosevic?
"Obviously not," Holbrooke said. "You can't bomb them, either."
The election on August 20th was a disaster that could change the course of the war. The evidence of fraud by Karzai's campaign was so overwhelming that it threatened to render the entire vote illegitimate. Publicly, Holbrooke hailed the election; privately, colleagues said, he suggested that a runoff between Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, might be necessary for the appearance of legitimacy. Karzai got wind of these words, and, when he and Holbrooke met, the Afghan President exploded, accusing the Americans of plotting to drive him out of office. Since then, Holbrooke has maintained a detached public stance, in order not to antagonize America's partner in Kabul and undermine the Afghan government's standing. He even compared Afghanistan's vast state-sponsored vote theft to an electoral controversy in Minnesota, saying, "That happens in democracies, even when they are not in the middle of a war."
Karzai, with his expressed fears about intimidation and low turnout in Pashtun areas, had been blowing smoke in the Americans' faces: in those very districts, with few or no voters going to the polls, his associates had been free to stuff empty boxes full of falsified ballots or set up phantom polling sites. The Americans appeared to have been unready for fraud on such a scale-before the election, Holbrooke's main concerns seemed to be violence and voter apathy. Now there is a strong possibility that a stolen election will leave Karzai in power for five more years, at the very moment that Obama has to answer his generals' request to send thousands more troops to fight, and perhaps die, on behalf of the Afghan government. But since his speech in late March the President has said very little publicly about the war, almost as if he lacked conviction about his own policy.
Christopher Hill once said of Holbrooke, "He often works on the music before he gets to the words, creating an atmosphere and a sense of what are we dealing with-are we dealing with a sad song, or what? Right now, Richard Holbrooke is getting a sense of the issues, the people. Eventually, the music will shift from Vietnam to the Balkans. And if he gets to a negotiation it will be realistic." When I repeated Hill's remark to Holbrooke on the plane, he took out a pen, and on a napkin he wrote down "INSTITUTION BUILDING." He drew a line under it, and below the line he wrote "DIP PHASE." "Things are not sequential," Holbrooke said. "They have to be parallel processes." He acknowledged that no Dayton would come at the end of the diplomatic phase. In both Vietnam and the Balkans, he said, "there was always a fixed adversary, with whom you could talk even while fighting." This time, the enemy had no capital, no government. It was very hard to imagine a cast of characters, in suits and uniforms and turbans, seated around a table, preparing to end the Af-Pak war, with Holbrooke standing over them, smiling the smile that told you he had won.
In our conversations, Holbrooke admitted that much of his new job had "a back-to-the-future quality," but he was wary of the subject of Vietnam, as if he smelled a trap. On the flight home, exasperated with my questions about his earlier life, he wrote out and handed to me a short account of the main reasons for America's failure in Vietnam, which concluded, "The mission itself was based on a profound misreading, by five presidents and their advisors, of the strategic importance of Vietnam to the U.S."
Even so, Holbrooke couldn't stop invoking the war of his youth. From Kabul, he called the journalist Stanley Karnow, an old friend, and put him on the phone with General McChrystal to discuss the lessons of Vietnam. He mentioned Vietnam in staff meetings in Washington, and he brought it up in a speech to American Embassy personnel on my last day in Kabul: "Having been in similar circumstances earlier in my career, in another war-as they say, in a distant galaxy and another time-I know what it's like to be out here in difficult conditions without your family." When he called for the Embassy to encourage spouses to come live in Kabul, despite the danger, Holbrooke was unconsciously repeating an idea that he had put forth in a memo in 1966.
On the trip, I watched him avoid the mistakes of his predecessors in Vietnam. He informed himself deeply, asked hard questions, pressed for an exit strategy, and emphasized the need to "Afghanize" the war. Vietnam helped Holbrooke understand the fine details of pacification programs, and made him confront the largest strategic question-whether a war should be fought at all. In Vietnam, what couldn't be done didn't need to be done; the war was a folly. Holbrooke was working from the simple deduction that, because Al Qaeda threatened the United States, America did need to be there. Obama had set the policy, and Holbrooke was carrying it out, relentlessly.
Holbrooke must know that there will be no American victory in this war; he can only try to forestall potential disaster. But if he considers success unlikely, or even questions the premise of the war, he has kept it to himself. "Americans cannot think of a situation where, in the face of attacks by Al Qaeda, they would give up, they would say, ‘The hell with it, we have to leave,' " he told me. "It's just not an acceptable course of action." It was as if, for Holbrooke, the year would always be 1962, his career at its beginning. He said, "I still believe in the possibility of the United States, with all its will and all its strength, and I don't just mean military, persevering against any challenge. I still believe in that."
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