Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reflecting on the Death of Richard Holbrooke

Yesterday, veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrooke died at the age of 69 from a torn aorta. My sympathies go out to his friends and family. He is best known for brokering the Dayton Accords which ended the conflict in Bosnia.

While his family will mourn his loss and are directly affected by his death, so too is the US foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Holbrooke had been on President Obama's vanguard of trying to deal with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan's longstanding support of the Taliban and ongoing crossborder actions enabling the Taliban to regroup and rearm. Frankly, he had more foreign policy experience than most everyone else around him, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Clinton got the job that Holbrooke had sought for himself - primarily because Holbrooke had backed Clinton during the 2008 primary race. However, Clinton took Holbrooke on to her staff and put him in a position to deal with the most intractable problems facing the new Administration - dealing with the situation in Afghanistan.

While Holbrooke's last words were reportedly to his Pakistani doctor telling him to end the fighting, the words of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai are far more troubling and relevant. Despite years of cajoling and propping up Karzai as the leader of the Afghans, Karzai still thinks that the country might be better off with the Taliban.
For more than an hour, Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and other top Western officials in Kabul urged Karzai to delay implementing a ban on private security firms. Reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars would have to be shuttered, they maintained, if foreign guards were evicted.

Sitting at the head of a glass-topped, U-shaped table in his conference room, Karzai refused to budge, according to two people with direct knowledge of the late October meeting. He insisted that Afghan police and soldiers could protect the reconstruction workers, and he dismissed pleas for a delay.

As he spoke, he grew agitated, then enraged. He told them that he now has three "main enemies" - the Taliban, the United States and the international community.

"If I had to choose sides today, I'd choose the Taliban," he fumed.

After a few more parting shots, he got up and walked out of the wood-paneled room.

The riposte, and the broader fight over private security contractors, prompted deep alarm among senior U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington. The Obama administration had been trying for the better part of a year to cast aside earlier disputes and make nice with Karzai. But it clearly was not working. Eikenberry told colleagues at the embassy that the relationship had hit its lowest point in years.

As President Obama and his national security team assess the war this week, a central element of the discussion will be their difficulties in building a partnership with Karzai. Despite a concerted effort by top diplomats and commanders, the United States has been unable to achieve more than ephemeral bonhomie with the Afghan leader.
How is it that Karzai has come to view the US as a greater enemy than the Taliban, who routinely murders and butchers Afghans without concern for human rights or remorse? And how is it that relations have declined in the past year. Part of that stems from the approach taken by the White House and its foreign policy objectives - which include withdrawal from the country under a misguided notion of timelines.

Karzai can read the political situation in Afghanistan better than President Obama and his foreign policy staff. Karzai has to live in Afghanistan. The diplomats can go back home to the safety of Foggy Bottom. He knows that the Taliban can reassert themselves the moment the US leaves, and he's not about to signal to the Taliban that he intends to cross paths with them. He will make accommodations so as to remain in power. Instead of showing that the US will commit to a lengthy period of rebuilding and nation-building that would go a long way to assisting the Afghan nation and undermine the Taliban threat, Karzai views the US as another obstacle to his hold on power because aligning with the US as the US withdraws is tantamount to a death sentence.

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