MONDAY MUSINGS – Afghanistan Redux

Monday – April 22, 2013 

Well,  the North Koreans didn’t fire any missiles last Monday as I predicted, even though the South still says the missile tests are coming soon.  If they had, I expect the news would have been drowned out by the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, an event I don’t want to discuss here.  There is ample discussion on cable.  I would like to stay on the subject of foreign policy, though, and an old topic – Afghanistan.  A just published book is creating quite a stir:  THE DISPENSABLE NATION: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.  The author is Vali Nasr, an internationally renowned expert on Islamic and Middle Eastern politics.  Born in Tehran, he immigrated to the U.S. immediately after the 1979 revolution and obtained his PhD in political science from MIT in 1991 .  Today, he is the Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board.  During 2009-2011 he was recruited by Richard Holbrooke who was appointed by President Obama as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP).  Nasr was SRAP’s senior advisor. It is his experiences during this period that he writes about, which may be best be described in his own words from the Introduction to his book:


The book tells three stories simultaneously.

The first is the story of an administration that made it extremely difficult for its own foreign policy experts to be heard. This book will describe how both Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke had to fight to have their voices count on major foreign policy initiatives…the president’s habit of funneling major foreign policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics was truly disturbing. The primary concern of these advisers was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news.

The second story this book will tell is what happened when those of us in the foreign policy establishment were told to go out and sell often stunningly obtuse proposals to our allies in the region.  But perhaps the most important story this book tells is this one: the story of the price the United States will pay for its failure to understand that the coming geopolitical competition with China will not be played out in the Pacific theater alone. Important parts of that competition will be played out in the Middle East, and we had better be prepared for the jousting and its global consequences.


So that you do not think this is a stale foreign policy treatise, I have included some excerpts from the first chapter: The Good War Gone Bad.


Our very first meeting was with Egypt’s foreign minister. He was Holbrooke’s longtime friend and could not have been more gracious in his greetings. Holbrooke launched into his presentation of our plans for Afghanistan—defeating the insurgency and building democracy, a vibrant economy, a large army, and a strong civil society.  But sometimes even before Holbrooke had quite finished his thought, the minister interjected in rather blunt terms that everything Holbrooke was saying sounded a lot like our plans for Iraq.  When Holbrooke finished, the foreign minister immediately launched into his own presentation.  “Richard,” he began, “of course we will support you, we always have. But why do you want to get mixed up in another war? This will only help the terrorists. All the talk among our youth now is of going to Afghanistan for jihad against the Americans.”  It was not just the words he used that came through loud and clear to us. It was his dismissiveness and frustration at having to once again support a plan that made no sense to him and that was being presented as a near fait accompli.

Reactions only worsened after that. At our next meeting with an Arab foreign minister, we sipped tea and nibbled on dates as Holbrooke went through his talking points. Once again the diplomats on the other side of the table made it painfully clear that they thought we were way off in la-la land with our talk of building democracy and a strong civil society and everything else we were offering.  And when it was their turn to talk, they said just that. “It is much better you buy local warlords to keep al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan,” our host responded. “I figure that will cost you $20 billion, which is what, one fifth of what you spend every year in Afghanistan? Spend that and then just go home!”  It wasn’t as if the foreign minister was trying to put us down; you could tell from the way he spoke that he truly believed that we didn’t understand and that he was doing us a favor.

Next on our list was another Arab foreign minister. I could have closed my eyes and thought I was in the previous meeting. In fact, had there been more time between the two meetings we could have concluded that the two foreign ministers had compared notes. As Holbrooke went through the same talking points, our host fidgeted, as if he were impatient for Holbrooke to finish so he could bring the discussion back to reality. When his turn came, he jumped right in.  “You can pay to end this war,” he began. As if he were talking to someone who clearly had little to no understanding of the dynamics in the region, he told us we were fighting the wrong war. “You should talk to the Taliban, not fight them. That will help you with Iran.” Since the Iraq war, Persian Gulf countries have been worried about the rise of Iran’s influence in the region, and are especially worried about its steady march toward nuclear capability. They wanted America to focus on Iran—even if it meant playing nice with the Taliban.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia couldn’t have agreed more. “You have to look to the root of the Taliban problem,” he told Holbrooke. And what did the king think was the source of our problems in Afghanistan? Iran, of course…

The drumbeat of skepticism continued. Almost a year later, during a visit to the White House, Pakistan’s army chief gave President Obama a thirteen-page white paper he had written to explain his views on the outstanding strategic issues between Pakistan and the United States which could be summarized as follows: You are not going to win the war, and you are not going to transform Afghanistan. This place has devoured empires before you; it will defy you as well. Stop your grandiose plans and let’s get practical, sit down, and discuss how you will leave and what is an end state we can both live with.

The army chief  expressed the same doubt time and again in meetings. We would try to convince him  that we were committed to the region and had a solution for Afghanistan’s problems: we would first beat the Taliban and then build a security force to hold the place together after we left. He, like many others, thought the idea of an Afghan military was foolish and that we were better off negotiating an exit with the Taliban.  Please don’t try to build that Afghan army. “You will fail,” he said. “Then you will leave and that half-trained army will break into militias that will be a problem for Pakistan.” He was sure it would eventually collapse and the fragments of the broken army would resort to crime and terrorism to earn their keep. That after all was pretty much what happened when the Soviet Union stopped paying for the Afghan army it had built…his counsel was basically “if you want to leave, just leave—we didn’t believe you were going to stay anyway—but don’t do any more damage on your way out.” This seemed to be a ubiquitous sentiment across the region. No one bought our argument for sending more troops into Afghanistan.

In late 2011 the administration decided that it could use China’s help.. A veteran diplomat, an old China hand, made the rounds in Beijing, meeting with the Chinese president, premier, and foreign minister. Their answer was clear and unequivocal: “This is your problem. You made this mess in Afghanistan. More war has made things much worse, and in Pakistan things were not so bad before you started poking around. We have interests in this area, but they do not include pulling your chestnuts out of the fire. We will look after our own interests in our own way.” They invariably asked, “What is your strategy there, anyway?”

What do you think?

Thanks for stopping by.






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