Best Defense

Shine a light: Two great reporters on Afghanistan

The New Yorker‘s George Packer and the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward weigh in with complementary pieces that illuminate a lot of what is going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Packer’s profile of aging diplo-wunderkind Richard Holbrooke is close to book length, and every word is worth reading. He plumbs three great mysteries: problems: the future ...

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The New Yorker‘s George Packer and the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward weigh in with complementary pieces that illuminate a lot of what is going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Packer’s profile of aging diplo-wunderkind Richard Holbrooke is close to book length, and every word is worth reading. He plumbs three great mysteries: problems: the future of Afghanistan, the situation in Pakistan, and the size of Holbrooke’s ego. He also offers up some wonderful asides. This one particularly struck me:

Washington promotes tactical brilliance framed by strategic conformity — the facility to outmaneuver one’s counterpart in a discussion, without questioning fundamental assumptions.     

Packer also touches on an issue of strategic process I was discussing last week, that the purpose of high-level meetings must be in part to find and explore differences of view. Holbrooke tells him:

 … you want open airing of views and opinions and suggestions upward, but once the policy’s decided you want rigorous, disciplined implementation of it. And very often in the government the exact opposite happens. People sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross purposes, even actively undermining each other.

That strikes me as a pretty good summary of the Bush Administration’s handling of Iraq, 2002-2006 — but if other examples occur to readers, I would be interesting in hearing about it. I think this is a frequent problem in developing American strategy.    

Packer also has a great anecdote about Vali Nasr challenging U.S. policy on Pakistan on his first day on the job as an advisor to Holbrooke. He wound up writing a memo that the president read the next day, and then said, “I agree with Vali Nasr.”

And Packer’s summary of the dysfunctionality at the heart of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is very good:

Underlying the crisis was an unhappy history with the United States: on the Pakistani side, a sense of being exploited for American strategic goals; on the American side, a sense of being chronically deceived.

Packer quotes Nasr on this disappointing history : “two countries that aren’t enemies but don’t trust each other.”

On Afghanistan, Packer also describes our basic problem there, that we have two enemies — on the one hand, the Taliban and its allies, and on the other, our own allies. “[E]very time an Afghan encountered the government, he was hurt by it — abused, asked for a bribe, hauled off to jail without evidence.” He concludes that the recent Afghan election was “a disaster that could change the course of the war.”  

Woodward’s article also hits this point about U.S. official worries about the Afghan government, which, it quotes Gen. McChrystal’s official report as saying, has “given Afghans little reason to support their government.” But Woodward focuses on Gen. McChrystal’s warning that if doesn’t get more troops and regain the initiative within the next 12 months, then “defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

Also, the intrepid Nancy Youssef has a piece in the Miami Herald suggesting that McChrystal will quit if not given the troops and other resources he is requesting:

In Kabul, some members of McChrystal’s staff said they don’t understand why Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity” but still hasn’t given them the resources they need to turn things around quickly.

Three officers at the Pentagon and in Kabul told McClatchy Newspapers that the McChrystal they know would resign before he would stand behind a faltering policy that he thought would endanger his forces or the strategy.

“Yes, he’ll be a good soldier, but he will only go so far,” a senior official in Kabul said. “He’ll hold his ground. He’s not going to bend to political pressure.”

If the general is smart, he will make a sharp public statement on this issue disavowing this sort of blackmailing the boss. That ain’t kosher in our system.    

Finally, here is Andrew Sullivan’s helpful summary of the early round of reactions to all this. And, as always, the wonderful David Wood.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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