Marc Lynch

Parsing Team Holbrooke

 This morning I slipped in as one of the very last people let in to see Richard Holbrooke and most of his team at a packed room in the St. Regis Hotel (thanks, anonymous CAP staffer who came to usher me in past the bouncers).  Holbrooke’s decision to showcase his entire team was quite interesting ...

 This morning I slipped in as one of the very last people let in to see Richard Holbrooke and most of his team at a packed room in the St. Regis Hotel (thanks, anonymous CAP staffer who came to usher me in past the bouncers).  Holbrooke’s decision to showcase his entire team was quite interesting in and of itself, as was his determination to offer the Obama administration’s approach to Afghanistan as a model and test case for a new "whole of government" approach to security issues.  I had a bunch of meetings the rest of the afternoon, so in internet time this is already ancient history — there’s already been a lot of good commentary and discussion of the event on the blogs.  I’ll just throw out a few of my own reactions anyway and leave it at that. 

 It was obvious the moment it came out of his mouth that most of the commentary from today’s event would focus on Holbrooke’s statement that we would know success when we saw it (I think I may have been the first to Twitter it, at least!).  The "Supreme Court" test has triggered the fears of a wide range of obvservers, with Michael Cohen declaring it the "jumping the shark" moment for his Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch.  Let’s just say that I didn’t find this reassuring.  

 But I’m actually less worried about the absence of metrics than I am by the continuing lack of clarity about the strategic rationale and core objectives of the mission.  Moderator John Podesta zeroed in ruthlessly on this in his first question:  what happened between President Obama’s March 27 declaration of a limited set of objectives –"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future"  — and the expansive goals of "armed state building" which appear to now define the mission?  

 Holbrooke restated the importance of Pakistan, and the interconnections of al-Qaeda and the Taliban(s), but ultimately didn’t answer the question.  Indeed, tension appeared to exist between different members of his team.  Holbrooke and other team members talked about a vast range of necessary steps across the entire spectrum — the U.S. can’t succeed unless Afghan farmers succeed, the Afghan government must gain legitimacy, and so forth.  But at another point, team member Barnett Rubin said, in line with the original Obama policy, that "we are committed to fight there until we are secure from terrorist attacks launched from there and until the region is safe from nuclear terrorism." 

 Is that still the goal, or is constructing a stable and functioning Afghan state now a goal in and of itself? Does achieving the clear, precise goal of fighting al-Qaeda really require the long-term commitment to state-building and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan which is now being pursued?  Does it even require defeating the Taliban?  I could be convinced that such an approach is required — but find it disturbing that the case is not being made, and that goals remain alarmingly elastic.   As Spencer Ackerman points out, discontent is growing among people who support the Obama administration about the way this policy is evolving — it’s not just me. 

 On other matters, I found  Holbrooke’s discussion of the regional diplomacy to be one of the most interesting parts of the event.  Holbrooke pointed with some pride to the rapid evolution of multilateral participation in his mission of creating  what Rubin called a regional environment with a stake in stability in Afghanistan.  Among the 25 countries which he described as regularly participating, he singled out Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE — raising all kinds of intriguing questions about regional interconnections, and what these countries are actually doing for and with Afghanistan, financial flows, and whatnot.  

 The most important and problematic of those interconnections, of course, has to do with Iran.  Pressed by Podesta to reconcile American policy towards the Iranian nuclear program with Iran’s potential importance inside of Afghanistan, Holbrooke acknowledged bluntly (and correctly) that Iran has a legitimate role to play in the resolution of the Afghan issue — and pretending that they don’t is not helpful.  He denied direct contacts with Iran on the issue, specifically excluding them from the 25, but the dots seem there to connect. 

 But this once again raises crucial strategic questions:  how is Holbrooke’s team coordinating with the administration’s Iran policy makers (presumably but not transparently led by Dennis Ross)?  How will the administration assess the tradeoffs between pressuring Iran on the nuclear issue and seeking its assistance in Afghanistan, as both issues come to a head over the coming months?  Which will give if a choice must be made?   Obama’s foreign policy has always been characterized by a strong recognition of the inter-related nature of the various regional challenges — so how do the parts here, in these two vital theaters, fit together?  

 The other really interesting part of the event, to me, was the discussion of strategic communications and the media by Vikram Singh and Ashley Bommer — but I’ll leave that to another post since it raises a whole range of issues of ongoing interest to me. More later. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark