I love you Fredo…er, Hamid…

One can only hope that George Packer’s nearly book-length profile of Richard Holbrooke actually ends up being a book.  Because I really want to see what happens next. The must-read article in the September 28 issue of The New Yorker ends a few weeks back. “The election on August 20th,” writes Packer of Afghanistan as ...

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WASHINGTON - MAY 07: Special Representative Richard Holbrooke (R) speaks while flanked by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on Capitol Hill May 7, 2009 in Washington, DC. President Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari were guests at a luncheon at the Capitol. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

One can only hope that George Packer's nearly book-length profile of Richard Holbrooke actually ends up being a book.  Because I really want to see what happens next.

The must-read article in the September 28 issue of The New Yorker ends a few weeks back. "The election on August 20th," writes Packer of Afghanistan as he starts to wrap up the piece, "was a disaster that could change the course of the war." No kidding. But how? The article, which brilliantly describes the complex and extraordinarily talented Holbrooke at work as America's latest viceroy in the region (a very big step up indeed from the last one, Jerry of Baghdad, also known as Ambassador L. Paul Bremer), hints that things won't end well. 

One can only hope that George Packer’s nearly book-length profile of Richard Holbrooke actually ends up being a book.  Because I really want to see what happens next.

The must-read article in the September 28 issue of The New Yorker ends a few weeks back. “The election on August 20th,” writes Packer of Afghanistan as he starts to wrap up the piece, “was a disaster that could change the course of the war.” No kidding. But how? The article, which brilliantly describes the complex and extraordinarily talented Holbrooke at work as America’s latest viceroy in the region (a very big step up indeed from the last one, Jerry of Baghdad, also known as Ambassador L. Paul Bremer), hints that things won’t end well. 

In fact, it does more than hint, ending with a pretty unmistakable implication that Packer thinks the “I still believe in the possibility of the United States” inspiration Holbrooke draws from his first days in the foreign service during the Kennedy era is a sign that he fails to understand America’s limitations and is doomed to get his last assignment wrong. 

Now, just a few weeks after those rigged elections, we have the Obama Administration and America more divided than ever over what to do next.  If counter-insurgency is our goal and strong Afghan government institutions are the key to that effort, argues General McChrystal and many others, then the corruption and haplessness of the Karzai regime is as big a threat as the Taliban. 

So what do we do to demonstrate our resolve on this front?  Well, of course, as reported in yesterday’s papers, we gather our allies together and announce that we believe Hamid’s the man, will be for the next five years and that we stand firmly behind him. But it’s hard not to conclude that’s just public posturing.  I mean you’ve got to hope that there’s more going on here.  So, given the colorful confrontations between Karzai and Holbrooke described in the article, I want to read on about thier next meeting, maybe seated again around a long table surrounded by scurrying aides, conveying this message of support and the nuances that go with it. Maybe with violins. 

“You’re our man, Fredo, and I love you, but….”

Did I say Fredo?  I meant, Hamid.  But you get the idea.  In the end, maybe not now, maybe not for a while, maybe not until Mama Corleone dies, but it’s not going to end well for our brother in Kabul, no matter how sincere-sounding our protestations of love. Because, to put a finer point on the McChrystal conclusions: There is no way to “win” in Afghanistan…or even to gracefully lose there…except to have a local government strong enough to maintain the peace when we exit.  And so in this respect Karzai is actually not just one of the principal obstacles to victory, real or declared, he is the principal obstacle.  Which is why we must hold him close until we figure out how to take care of him.  But take care of him we must.  He won’t change…so he must be changed.

How Holbrooke and company manage this relationship with an ally who is also an enemy — while they are doing virtually the same thing in Pakistan — is bound to be fascinating to watch.   In part because the problem is so challenging. In part because Holbrooke, to my way of thinking, is an even greater asset for the United States than the way he is described in an article in which many of his detractors were clearly among Packer’s sources. He’s not easy. But he’s relentless, serious, smart and creative  He’s the best we’ve got who has been given the worst job. Which is why, come to think of it, the book won’t do the trick, I can’t wait for the movie. (Primarily because watching it, I’ll know this troubling chapter in our history will be over.)  Maybe Sam Waterston can play Holbrooke  With him, we always know things will work out ok. 

But of course, for now, for those of us stuck here on this side of history (and mired as we are in reality), we recognize that critical parts of the final plot are yet to be decided-and that the key decisions about these necessarily must take place above Holbrooke’s pay grade.  

Packer very effectively weaves into the profile a chilling indictment of where America’s overall AfPak policy is heading. He does this with what is perhaps the core point of the story, woven in to his introduction to young Holbrooke, “Washington promotes tactical brilliance framed by strategic conformity-the facility to out-maneuver one’s counterpart in a discussion without questioning fundamental assumptions.” He does this with sharp quotes from outside observers all which point to the same conclusion.  (Hafez Assad’s “America is short of breath.” Mort Abramowitz’ pithy and undeniable “Obama, in a fit of absent-mindedness, to show he was tough, made Afghanistan his signature issue because he wanted to get out of Iraq. And this is going to be Goddamned difficult.” Tim Carney’s “We get into relationships that give the leaders of countries the strength of their weakness.”) And he does this by directly observing at the end the irony that while Holbrooke demonstrated his early promise by questioning whether Vietnam should be fought at all in Afghanistan he was simply accepting the mission given him by Obama-a mission that is well worth questioning. (Indeed, one that some in the administration, led by Vice President Joe Biden who seems via snippets in this article such a useful, iconoclastic voice on the subject that I hope the big profile of him is coming soon. Or better yet, I hope someone’s listening to him.)

Reading this last point, I felt the conclusion of the piece was as poignant as it was a skeptical read on current policy. It suggested that, contrary Santayana, even those who best understood the past-and even the presidents advised by them — were doomed to repeat it.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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