No laughing matter?

Was this funny or revealing, or both? In a Sunday article on the growing role of “civilian power” in U.S. foreign policy, Dexter Filkins of the New York Times describes the following exchange between special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, during a recent meeting with a group of ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
586833_090413_85833349REZ2.jpg
586833_090413_85833349REZ2.jpg

Was this funny or revealing, or both? In a Sunday article on the growing role of "civilian power" in U.S. foreign policy, Dexter Filkins of the New York Times describes the following exchange between special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, during a recent meeting with a group of Afghan religious leaders:

I've come to the region nine or ten times," Admiral Mullen told the clerics.

Was this funny or revealing, or both? In a Sunday article on the growing role of “civilian power” in U.S. foreign policy, Dexter Filkins of the New York Times describes the following exchange between special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, during a recent meeting with a group of Afghan religious leaders:

I’ve come to the region nine or ten times,” Admiral Mullen told the clerics.

Mr. Holbrooke jumped in.

“And each time, things have gotten worse.”

Filkins reports that Mullen, Holbrooke, and the clerics all had a good laugh. But does the joke contain a revealing insight as well? Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole links to a Pakistani report that U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas have killed 687 Pakistani civilians over the past two years, but only 14 al Qaeda leaders. If this is correct (and by the way, I wouldn’t assume that it is), it may help explain why the situation has been deteriorating despite renewed U.S. attention. (Even if one halved the number of civilians killed and doubled the number of al Qaeda leaders eliminated, it would still be a troubling report.)

Holbrooke and Mullen undoubtedly know more about the details in Central Asia than I do (at least, I sure hope they do) and so it’s possible they will eventually devise a politico-military strategy that stabilizes the situation.  But let’s not forget that Holbrooke is a committed “can-do” type who has never been shy about using American power, and if anything, his track record shows a tendency to underestimate difficulties. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, for example, even though he now says that leaving Afghanistan prematurely was an “historic mistake.” And though his role in brokering the 1995 Dayton Accord cemented his reputation as a diplomatic trouble-shooter, he and the rest of the Clinton administration told us back then that U.S. peacekeeping forces would only be in Bosnia for one year. The actual number turned out to be nine, and Holbrooke recently admitted that the Bosnia remains a “powder keg.”

Holbrooke has already stated that “victory, as defined in purely military terms, is not achievable” in Afghanistan, and the administration clearly believes that success there (defined as what, exactly?) requires a parallel success (again, defined how?) in Pakistan. But how do we do that? And to repeat: what’s Plan B if 172 million Pakistanis prove to be even more intractable than the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, who together totaled fewer than 20 million?

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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