The Inside Story of How the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan

"My time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience."

By , the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Photos courtesy of Vali Nasr
Photos courtesy of Vali Nasr
Photos courtesy of Vali Nasr

It was close to midnight on Jan. 20, 2009, and I was about to go to sleep when my iPhone beeped. There was a new text message. It was from Richard Holbrooke. It said, "Are you up, can you talk?" When I called, he told me that Barack Obama had asked him to serve as envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He would work out of the State Department, and he wanted me to join his team. "No one knows this yet. Don't tell anyone. Well, maybe your wife." (The Washington Post reported his appointment the next day.)

It was close to midnight on Jan. 20, 2009, and I was about to go to sleep when my iPhone beeped. There was a new text message. It was from Richard Holbrooke. It said, “Are you up, can you talk?” When I called, he told me that Barack Obama had asked him to serve as envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He would work out of the State Department, and he wanted me to join his team. “No one knows this yet. Don’t tell anyone. Well, maybe your wife.” (The Washington Post reported his appointment the next day.)

I first met Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat best known for making peace in the Balkans and breaking plenty of china along the way, at a 2006 conference in Aspen, Colorado. We sat together at one of the dinners and talked about Iran and Pakistan. Holbrooke ignored the keynote speech, the entertainment that followed, and the food that flowed in between to bombard me with questions. We had many more conversations over the next three years, and after I joined him on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2007, we spoke frequently by phone.

Now, making his sales pitch, Holbrooke told me that government is the sum of its people. “If you want to change things, you have to get involved. If you want your voice to be heard, then get inside.” He knew I preferred to work on the Middle East and in particular Iran. But he had different ideas. “This [Afghanistan and Pakistan] matters more. This is what the president is focused on. This is where you want to be.”

He was persuasive, and I knew that we were at a fork in the road. Regardless of what promises candidate Obama made on his way to the White House, Afghanistan now held the future — his and America’s — in the balance. And it would be a huge challenge. When Obama took office, the war in Afghanistan was already in its eighth year. By then, the fighting had morphed into a full-blown insurgency, and the Taliban juggernaut looked unstoppable. They had adopted a flexible, decentralized military structure and even a national political organization, with shadow governors and district leaders for nearly every Afghan province. America was losing, and the enemy knew it. It was a disaster in the making.

But Holbrooke, who would have been secretary of state had Clinton won the presidency but had been vetoed by Obama to be her deputy when she accepted the State Department job instead, now insisted to me that he relished the chance to take on what he dubbed the “AfPak” portfolio. “Nothing is confirmed, but it is pretty much a done deal,” he told me. “If you get any other offers, let me know right away.” Then he laughed and said, “If you work for anyone else, I will break your knees. This is going to be fun. We are going to do some good. Now get some sleep.”

Two months later, I was at my desk at SRAP, as the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan quickly became known. Those first few months were a period of creativity and hope. Holbrooke had carved out a little autonomous principality on the State Department’s first floor, filling it with young diplomats, civil servants, and outside experts like me, straight to the job from a tenured post at Tufts University. Scholars, journalists, foreign dignitaries, members of Congress, and administration officials walked in daily to get their fill of how AfPak strategy was shaping up. Even Hollywood got in on SRAP. Angelina Jolie lent a hand to help refugees in Pakistan, and the usually low-key State Department cafeteria was abuzz when Holbrooke sat down for coffee with Natalie Portman to talk Afghanistan.

People started early and worked late into the night, and there was a constant flow of new ideas, like how to cut corruption and absenteeism among the Afghan police by using mobile banking and cell phones to pay salaries; how to use text messaging to raise money for refugees; or how to stop the Taliban from shutting down mobile-phone networks by putting cell towers on military bases. SRAP had more of the feel of an Internet start-up than a buttoned-up State Department office.

Holbrooke encouraged the creative chaos. “I want you to learn nothing from government,” he told me. “This place is dead intellectually. It does not produce any ideas; it is all about turf battles and checking the box. Your job is to break through all this. Anyone gives you trouble, come to me.” On his first visit to SRAP, Gen. David Petraeus, then Centcom commander, mused, “This is the flattest organization I have ever seen. I guess it works for you.”

Still, Holbrooke knew that Afghanistan was not going to be easy. There were too many players and too many unknowns, and Obama had not given him enough authority (and would give him almost no support) to get the job done. After he took office, the president never met with Holbrooke outside large meetings and never gave him time and heard him out. The president’s White House advisors were dead set against Holbrooke. Some, like Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, were holdovers from George W. Bush’s administration and thought they knew Afghanistan better and did not want to relinquish control to Holbrooke. Others (those closest to the president) wanted to settle scores for Holbrooke’s tenacious campaign support of Clinton (who was herself eyed with suspicion by the Obama insiders); still others begrudged Holbrooke’s storied past and wanted to end his run of success then and there. At times it appeared the White House was more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right.

SRAP office picture in the State Department courtyard, May 2010. Nasr is two people to the right of Holbrooke.

Holbrooke, however, kept attacking the problem from all angles. It was as if he were trying to solve a Rubik’s cube — trying to bring into alignment what Congress, the military, the media, the Afghan government, and America’s allies wanted and how politicians, generals, and bureaucrats were likely to react. Just before his sudden death in December 2010, he told his wife, Kati Marton, that he thought he had finally found a way out that might just work. But he wouldn’t say what he had come up with, “not until he told the president first” — the president who did not have time to listen.

OBAMA HAS EARNED plaudits for his foreign-policy performance. On his watch, the United States has wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it finally killed Osama bin Laden. In tune with the public mood, he has largely kept America out of costly overseas adventures.

But my time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience. The truth is that his administration made it extremely difficult for its own foreign-policy experts to be heard. Both Clinton and Holbrooke, two incredibly dedicated and talented people, had to fight to have their voices count on major foreign-policy initiatives.

Holbrooke never succeeded. Clinton did — but it was often a battle. It usually happened only when it finally became clear to a White House that jealously guarded all foreign policymaking — and then relied heavily on the military and intelligence agencies to guide its decisions — that these agencies’ solutions were no substitute for the type of patient, credible diplomacy that garners the respect and support of allies. Time and again, when things seemed to be falling apart, the administration finally turned to Clinton because it knew she was the only person who could save the situation.

One could argue that in most administrations, an inevitable imbalance exists between the military-intelligence complex, with its offerings of swift, dynamic, camera-ready action, and the foreign-policy establishment, with its seemingly ponderous, deliberative style. But this administration advertised itself as something different. On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly stressed that he wanted to get things right in the broader Middle East, reversing the damage that had resulted from the previous administration’s reliance on faulty intelligence and its willingness to apply military solutions to problems it barely understood.

Not only did that not happen, but the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.

By September 2012, when violent anti-American protests swept the Muslim world, claiming the lives of four members of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya and dozens of demonstrators, it became clear that we had gotten the broader Middle East badly wrong.

The American people are tired of war — rightly so — and they welcome talk of leaving the region. The president has marketed the U.S. exit from Afghanistan as a foreign-policy coup, one that will not only unburden America from the region’s problems but also give the country the freedom it needs to pursue other, more pressing national security concerns.

This is an illusion. Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the broader, ill-defined “war on terror,” is a very good idea, provided it is done properly and without damage to U.S. interests or the region’s stability. But we should not kid ourselves that the rhetoric of departure is anything more than rhetoric; the United States is taking home its troops and winding down diplomatic and economic engagement — but leaving behind its Predators and Special Forces. We should not expect that the region will look more kindly on drone attacks and secret raids than it did on invasion and occupation.

Holbrooke and Nasr in Kabul, January 2010

Yet this is exactly the path that the White House has laid out. What follows is the story of how Barack Obama got it wrong.

THE ADMINISTRATION’S INITIAL reading of the crisis in Afghanistan was to blame it on the spectacular failure of President Hamid Karzai’s government, paired with wrongheaded military strategy, inadequate troop numbers for defeating an insurgency, and the Taliban’s ability to find a haven and military and material support in Pakistan. Of these, Karzai’s failings and the need to straighten out the military strategy dominated the discussion. Above all, the Afghanistan conflict was seen in the context of Iraq. The Taliban were viewed as an insurgency similar to the one that the United States had just helped defeat in Iraq. And what had defeated the insurgency in Iraq was a military strategy known as COIN, a boots-on-the-ground-intensive counterinsurgency.

But deciding what exactly to do soon turned into the Obama administration’s first AfPak disaster: the torturously long 2009 strategic review. To conduct it, the president sat with his national security team through 10 meetings — 25 hours — over three months, and there were many more meetings without the president. At SRAP, we managed the State Department’s contribution to the paper deluge, working long hours preparing memos, white papers, maps, and tables. But still more was needed.

Early in the process, Holbrooke came back from a meeting at the White House. “You did a good job,” he said. “The secretary [Clinton] was pleased with her material but wants her folders to be as big as [those of Defense Secretary Robert] Gates. She wants color maps, tables, and charts.” Clinton, continued Holbrooke, “does not want Gates to dominate the conversation by waving his colorful maps and charts in front of everybody. No one reads this stuff, but they all look at the maps and color charts.” Everyone in the office looked at him. “So who does read all this?” I asked, pointing to a huge folder on his desk. “I’ll tell you who,” he said. “The president reads them. He reads every folder.”

The amount of time spent seemed absurd. Every time Holbrooke came back from the White House, he would say, “The president has more questions.” Frustration was written all over Holbrooke’s and Clinton’s faces as the process dragged on. Obama was dithering. He was busybodying the national security apparatus by asking for more answers to the same set of questions, each time posed differently.

Holbrooke thought that Obama was not deciding because he disliked the options before him, and that the National Security Council (NSC) was failing the president by not giving him the right options. What Holbrooke omitted from his assessment was that Obama was failing to press the NSC to give him other options.

The night before Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who in June 2009 was installed as the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was to release the report outlining what he needed to fight the war, Holbrooke gathered his team in his office. We asked him what he thought McChrystal would request. He said, “Watch! The military will give the president three choices. There will be a ‘high-risk’ option” — Holbrooke held his hand high in the air — “that is what they always call it, which will call for maybe very few troops. Low troops, high risk. Then there will be a ‘low-risk’ option” — Holbrooke lowered his hand — “which will ask for double the number they are actually looking for. In the middle will be what they want,” which was between 30,000 and 40,000 more troops. And that is exactly what happened.

The alternative, which Vice President Joe Biden favored, was a stepped-up counterterrorism effort, dubbed “CT-plus,” that would involve drone strikes and Special Forces raids, mostly directed at al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Pakistan’s wild border region near Afghanistan. But this looked risky — too much like “cut and run” — and there was no guarantee that CT-plus could work without COIN. Like Biden, Holbrooke thought COIN was pointless, but he was not sold on CT-plus. He thought you could not have a regional strategy built on “secret war.” Drones are no substitute for a political settlement.

During the review, however, there was no discussion at all of diplomacy and a political settlement. Holbrooke wanted the president to consider this option, but the White House was not buying it. The military wanted to stay in charge, and going against the military would make the president look weak.

So Obama chose the politically safe option that he did not like: He gave the military what it asked for. Months of White House hand-wringing ended up with the administration choosing the option that had been offered from day one: fully resourced COIN and 30,000 additional troops. But Obama added a deadline of July 2011 for the larger troop commitment to work; after that the surge would be rolled back. In effect, the president said the new strategy was good for a year.

Holbrooke in Kabul, January 2010

FROM THE OUTSET, Holbrooke argued for political reconciliation as the path out of Afghanistan. But the military thought talk of reconciliation undermined America’s commitment to fully resourced COIN. On his last trip to Afghanistan, in October 2010, Holbrooke pulled aside Petraeus, who by then had replaced McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, and said, “David, I want to talk to you about reconciliation.” “That’s a 15-second conversation,” Petraeus replied. “No, not now.”

The commanders’ standard response was that they needed two more fighting seasons to soften up the Taliban. They were hoping to change the president’s mind on his July deadline and after that convince him to accept a “slow and shallow” (long and gradual) departure schedule. Their line was that we should fight first and talk later. Holbrooke thought we could talk and fight. Reconciliation should be the ultimate goal, and fighting the means to facilitate it.

The Taliban were ready for talks as early as April 2009. At that time, Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin, shortly before he joined Holbrooke’s team as his senior Afghan-affairs advisor, traveled to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. In Kabul Rubin met with former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who laid out in detail a strategy for talks: where to start, what to discuss, and the shape of the settlement that the United States and the Taliban could agree on. Zaeef said the Taliban needed concessions on prisoners America held at Guantánamo Bay and removal of the names of some Taliban from U.S. and U.N. blacklists sanctioning terrorists. Back in Washington — on the day he was sworn into government service — Rubin wrote Holbrooke a memo regarding this trip. That afternoon the two sat next to each other on the U.S. Airways shuttle back to New York. Holbrooke read the memo; then he turned to Rubin and said, “If this thing works, it may be the only way we will get out.” That was the beginning of a two-year campaign to sell the idea of talking to the Taliban: first to Clinton and then to the White House and Obama.

The White House, however, did not want to try anything as audacious as diplomacy. It was an art lost on America’s top decision-makers. They had no experience with it and were daunted by the idea of it.

While running for president, Obama had promised a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy: America would move away from Bush’s militarized foreign policy and take engagement seriously. When it came down to brass tacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, Clinton was the lonely voice making the case for diplomacy.

During the 2009 strategic review, Clinton had supported the additional troops but was not on board with the deadline Obama imposed on the surge, nor did she support hasty troop withdrawals. Clinton thought those decisions looked a lot like cut-and-run and would damage America’s standing in the world. Add this to where she came out on a host of other national security issues — including pushing Obama to go ahead with the Abbottabad operation to kill or capture bin Laden and breaking with the Pentagon to advocate using U.S. air power in Libya — and it is safe to say she was, and remains, tough on national security issues.

But Clinton shared Holbrooke’s belief that the purpose of hard power is to facilitate diplomatic breakthroughs. During many meetings I attended with her, she would ask us to make the case for diplomacy and would then quiz us on our assumptions and plan of action. At the end of these drills she would ask us to put it all in writing for the benefit of the White House.

Holbrooke and Clinton had a tight partnership. They were friends. Clinton trusted Holbrooke’s judgment and valued his counsel. They conferred often (not just on Afghanistan and Pakistan), and Clinton protected Holbrooke from an obdurate White House. The White House kept a dossier on Holbrooke’s misdeeds, and Clinton kept a folder on churlish attempts by the White House’s AfPak office to undermine Holbrooke, which she eventually gave to Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor. The White House tried to blame Holbrooke for leaks to the media. Clinton called out the White House on its own leaks. She sharply rebuked the White House after journalist Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker about a highly secret meeting with the Taliban that he was told about by a senior White House official.

Whenever possible, Clinton went to the president directly, around the so-called Berlin Wall of staffers who shielded Obama from any option or idea they did not want him to consider. Clinton had regular weekly private meetings with the president. She had asked for the “one-on-ones” as a condition for accepting the job in hopes of ensuring that the White House would not conveniently marginalize her and the State Department.

Even then, however, she had a tough time getting the administration to bite. Obama was sympathetic in principle but not keen on showing daylight between the White House and the military. Talking to enemies was a good campaign sound bite, but once in power Obama was too skittish to try it.

On one occasion in the summer of 2010, after the White House had systematically blocked every attempt to include reconciliation talks with the Taliban and serious regional diplomacy (which had to include Iran) on the agenda for national security meetings with the president, Clinton took a paper SRAP had prepared to Obama. She gave him the paper, explained what it laid out, and said, “Mr. President, I would like to get your approval on this.” Obama nodded his approval, but that was all. So his White House staff, caught off guard by Clinton, found ample room to kill the paper in Washington’s favorite way: condemning it to slow death in committee meetings. A few weeks after Clinton gave Obama the paper, I had to go to an “interagency” meeting organized by the White House that to my surprise was going to review the paper the president had already given the nod to. I remember telling Clinton about the meeting. She shook her head and exclaimed, “Unbelievable!”

Clinton got along well with Obama, but on Afghanistan and Pakistan the State Department had to fight tooth and nail just to have a hearing at the White House. Had it not been for Clinton’s tenacity and the respect she commanded, the State Department would have had no influence on policymaking whatsoever. The White House had taken over most policy areas: Iran and the Arab-Israeli issue were for all practical purposes managed from the White House. AfPak was a rare exception, and that was owed to Holbrooke’s quick thinking in getting SRAP going in February 2009, before the White House was able to organize itself.

The White House resented losing AfPak to the State Department. It fought hard to close down SRAP and take it back. That was one big reason the White House was on a warpath after Holbrooke. But Holbrooke would not back down, especially not when he thought those who wanted to wrest control of Afghanistan were out of their depth and not up to the job.

Turf battles are a staple of every administration, but the Obama White House has been particularly ravenous. Add to this the campaign hangover: Those in Obama’s inner circle, veterans of his election campaign, were suspicious of Clinton. Even after Clinton proved she was a team player, they remained concerned about her popularity and feared that she could overshadow the president.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until September 2011, told me Clinton “did a great job pushing her agenda, but it is incredible how little support she got from the White House. They want to control everything.” Victories for the State Department were few and hard fought. It was little consolation that its recommendations on reconciliation with the Taliban or regional diplomacy to end the Afghan war eventually became official policy — after the White House exhausted the alternatives.

The White House campaign against the State Department, and especially Holbrooke, was at times a theater of the absurd. Holbrooke was not included in Obama’s videoconferences with Karzai, and he was cut out of the presidential retinue when Obama went to Afghanistan. At times it looked as if White House officials were baiting Karzai to complain about Holbrooke so they could get him fired.

The White House worried that talking to the Taliban would give Holbrooke a greater role. For months, the White House plotted to either block reconciliation with the Taliban or find an alternative to Holbrooke for managing the talks. Lute, who ran AfPak at the White House, floated the idea of the distinguished U.N. diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi leading the talks. Clinton objected to outsourcing American diplomacy to the United Nations. Pakistan, too, was cool to the idea. The “stop Holbrooke” campaign was not only a distraction — it was influencing policy.

Another example was when Donilon’s predecessor as national security advisor, James Jones, traveled to Pakistan for high-level meetings without Holbrooke (not even informing the State Department of his travel plans until he was virtually in the air). Again, the message was “ignore Holbrooke.” It was no surprise that our AfPak policy took one step forward and two steps back.

During one trip, Jones went completely off script and promised Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s top military man, a civilian nuclear deal in exchange for Pakistan’s cooperation. Panic struck the White House. It took a good deal of diplomatic tap-dancing to take that offer off the table. In the end, one of Kayani’s advisors told me that the general did not take Jones seriously, anyway; he knew it was a slip-up. The NSC wanted to do the State Department’s job but was not up to the task.

Afghans and Pakistanis were not alone in being confused and occasionally amused by the White House’s maneuvers. People in Washington were also baffled. The White House encouraged the U.S. ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go around the State Department and work with the White House directly, undermining their own agency. Those ambassadors quickly learned how easy it was to manipulate the administration’s animus toward Holbrooke to their own advantage. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, in particular became a handful for the State Department. In November 2010, Obama and Clinton went to Lisbon for a NATO summit, planning to meet with Karzai there. When Eikenberry asked to go as well, Clinton turned down his request and instructed him to stay in Kabul. He ignored her and showed up in Lisbon.

PURSUING RECONCILIATION WAS difficult against the combined resistance of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the White House. It took a massive toll on Holbrooke. Still, Rubin, his Afghan-affairs advisor, provided the intellectual capital for him, arguing in ever greater detail that the Taliban would come to the table and that Karzai and many Afghans favored talking to them. Holbrooke and Rubin were sure a deal that would sever ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda and bring peace in Afghanistan was within reach.

Holbrooke asked Rubin to put his ideas into a series of memos that Holbrooke then fanned out across the government. After Holbrooke died, Rubin put those memos in one folder for the White House. In early spring of 2012 at a White House meeting, Clinton would push the idea one more time. Donilon replied that he had yet to see the State Department make a case for reconciliation. So Clinton asked Rubin for every memo he had written going back to his first day on the job. The 3-inch-thick folder spoke for itself.

All told, it took more than a year of lobbying inside the administration to get the White House to take the idea seriously. It was close to 18 months after Rubin wrote his first memo that Clinton could finally publicly endorse diplomacy on behalf of the administration, in a February 2011 speech at the Asia Society.

The Obama administration’s approach to reconciliation, however, is not exactly what Holbrooke had in mind for a diplomatic end to the war. Holbrooke thought that the United States would enjoy its strongest leverage if it negotiated with the Taliban when the country had the maximum number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan. He had not favored the Afghanistan surge, but once the troops were there, he thought the president should use the show of force to get to a diplomatic solution.

But that did not happen. The president failed to launch diplomacy and then announced the troop withdrawal in a June 2011 speech, in effect snatching away the leverage that would be needed if diplomacy were to have a chance of success. “If you are leaving, why would the Taliban make a deal with you? How would you make the deal stick? The Taliban will talk to you, but just to get you out faster.” That comment we heard from an Arab diplomat was repeated across the region.

Yet it was exactly after announcing the U.S. departure that the administration warmed up to the idea of reconciliation. Talks with the Taliban were not about arranging their surrender, but about hastening America’s departure.Concerns about human rights, women’s rights, and education were shelved. These were not seen as matters of vital U.S. interest, just noble causes that were too costly and difficult to support — and definitely not worth fighting an insurgency over.

The White House seemed to see an actual benefit in not doing too much. It was happy with its narrative of modest success in Afghanistan and gradual withdrawal — building Afghan security forces to take over from departing U.S. troops. The goal was to spare the president the risks that necessarily come with playing the leadership role that America claims to play in this region.

THE TRUE KEY TO ending the war, Holbrooke often told us, was to change Pakistan. Pakistan was the sanctuary that the Taliban insurgency used as a launching pad and a place to escape U.S. retaliation. But to convince Pakistan that we meant business, we first had to prove that America was going to stay.

But how? Pakistan’s double-dealing was in part a symptom of its bitterness over having been abandoned and then treated as a rogue state after a previous Afghan war, against the Soviets, had been won in 1989. Pakistan was also deeply insecure about India’s meteoric rise and growing strategic value to the West. Pakistanis were playing things very close to the vest. We had to get them to open up. Could we convince them that their strategic interests in Afghanistan could be addressed? If so, perhaps in time they might reassess their interests in a way more favorable to ours.

Holbrooke understood that the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA wanted Pakistan to cut ties with the Taliban and do more to fight terrorism. That would never happen, however, without at least some semblance of a normal relationship between Pakistan and the United States. Already in 2009, half the U.S. diplomatic mission in Pakistan worked on intelligence and counterterrorism rather than diplomacy or development. The U.S. Consulate in Peshawar was basically bricks shielding antennas. And it paid big dividends. The CIA collected critical intelligence in Pakistan that allowed for drone strikes against al Qaeda targets and on more than one occasion prevented a terrorist strike in the West. So the Obama administration began carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan on an industrial scale, decimating al Qaeda’s command-and-control structure and crippling the organization.

But hunting terrorists was unpopular in Pakistan, and drone strikes in particular angered Pakistanis. In public the authorities denied making any deal with the United States, but it was obvious to citizens that the drones flew with the authorities’ knowledge and even cooperation. The anger would only get worse as the number of drone attacks grew. But drones were a deeply classified topic in the U.S. government. You could not talk about them in public, much less discuss whom they were hitting and with what results. Embassy staffers took to calling drones “Voldemorts,” after the villain in the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort: “he who must not be named.” 

We knew from early 2009 that the drone problem meant the crucial intelligence relationship with Pakistan was headed for trouble. During my early days working with Holbrooke, when we were crafting a new Pakistan policy, one of Holbrooke’s deputies asked him, “If we are going to seriously engage, shouldn’t we make some changes to the drone policy, perhaps back off a bit?” Holbrooke replied, “Don’t even go there. Nothing is going to change.”

To create a new narrative, Holbrooke started by calling together a meeting in Tokyo of the newly created Friends of Democratic Pakistan, an international gathering to help Pakistan rebuild its economy and strengthen democratic politics. He got $5 billion in pledges to assist Pakistan. “That is a respectable IPO,” Holbrooke would brag, hoping that the opening would garner even more by way of capital investment in Pakistan’s future. But if we wanted to change Pakistan, Holbrooke thought, we had to think even bigger — in terms of a Marshall Plan. After a journalist asked him whether the $5 billion in aid was too much for Pakistan, Holbrooke answered, “Pakistan needs $50 billion, not $5 billion.” The White House did not want to hear that — it meant a fight with Congress and spending political capital to convince the American people. Above all else, it required an audacious foreign-policy gambit for which the Obama administration was simply not ready.

Yet in reality we were spending much more than that on Afghanistan. For every dollar we gave Pakistan in aid, we gave $20 to Afghanistan. That money did not go very far; it was like pouring water into sand. Even General Petraeus understood this. I recall him saying at a Pakistan meeting: “You get what you pay for. We have not paid much for much of anything in Pakistan.” In the end, we settled for far more modest assistance: The 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation earmarked $7.5 billion in aid to Pakistan over five years — the first long-term civilian aid package. It was no Marshall Plan.

Holbrooke also believed we needed more aggressive diplomacy: America had to talk to Pakistan frequently and not just about security issues that concerned the United States, but also about economic and social issues the Pakistanis cared about. So Holbrooke convinced Clinton that America had to offer a strategic partnership to Pakistan, built around a formal “strategic dialogue” — the kind of forum that America holds with a number of countries, including China and India.

In one of Clinton’s first meetings with Pakistan’s military and intelligence chiefs, she asked them point blank to tell her what their vision for Pakistan was: “Would Pakistan become like North Korea? I am just curious. I would like to hear where you see your country going.” The generals were at a loss for words. So was a group of senior journalists when, during a 2009 interview in Lahore, she pushed back against their incessant criticism of U.S. policy, saying: “I can’t believe that there isn’t anybody in the Pakistani government who knows where bin Laden is.” She was tough. But she was just as serious about engaging Pakistanis on issues that mattered to them.

The White House, however, was not all that taken by the diplomatic effort, and the CIA and the Pentagon decided on America’s goals vis-à-vis Pakistan. These were predictably narrow in scope and all terrorism-focused. They set a pugilistic tone for America’s talks with Pakistan but then bore no responsibility for the outcome. I remember Holbrooke shaking his head and saying. “Watch them [the CIA] ruin this relationship. And when it is ruined, they are going to say, ‘We told you: You can’t work with Pakistan!’ We never learn.”

Holbrooke knew that in these circumstances, anyone advocating diplomacy would have to fight to be heard inside the White House. He tried to reach out to Obama, but his efforts were to no avail. Obama remained above the fray. The president seemed to sense that no one would fault him for taking a tough-guy approach to Pakistan. If the approach failed (as indeed it did), the nefarious, double-dealing Pakistanis would get the blame (as indeed they did). 

After the 2011 bin Laden operation in Abbottabad, Washington was in no mood to soft-pedal what it saw as Pakistani duplicity. Pressure started to build on Pakistan. Gone were promises of aid and assistance, strategic partnership, and long-lasting ties. The administration threatened to cut aid and shamed and embarrassed Pakistan through public criticisms and media leaks. Some leaks retold familiar tales of Pakistan’s reluctance to cooperate; others revealed dark truths about how Pakistani intelligence had manipulated public opinion and even gone so far as to silence journalists permanently.

It quickly became common for White House meetings on Pakistan to turn into litanies of complaints as senior officials competed for colorful adjectives to capture how back-stabbing and untrustworthy they thought Pakistani leaders to be. The most frequently stated sentiment was “We have had it with these guys.” But they had also had it with us.

IN OCTOBER 2010, during a visit to the White House, General Kayani gave Obama a 13-page white paper he had written to explain his views on the outstanding strategic issues between Pakistan and the United States. Kayani 3.0, as the paper was dubbed (it was the third one Pakistanis had given the White House on the subject), could be summarized as: You are not going to win the war, and you are not going to transform Afghanistan. This place has devoured empires before you; it will defy you as well. Stop your grandiose plans, and let’s get practical, sit down, and discuss how you will leave and what is an end state we can both live with.

Kayani expressed the same doubt time and again in meetings. We would try to convince him that we were committed to the region and had a solution for Afghanistan’s problems: America would first beat the Taliban and then build a security force to hold the place together after it left. He, like many others, thought the idea of an Afghan military was foolish and that the United States was better off negotiating an exit with the Taliban.

In one small meeting around a narrow table, Kayani listened carefully and took notes as we went through our list of issues. I cannot forget Kayani’s reaction when we enthusiastically explained our plan to build up Afghan forces to 400,000 by 2014. His answer was swift and unequivocal: Don’t do it. “You will fail,” he said. “Then you will leave and that half-trained army will break into militias that will be a problem for Pakistan.” We tried to stand our ground, but he would have none of it. He continued, “I don’t believe that the Congress is going to pay $9 billion a year for this 400,000-man force.” He was sure it would eventually collapse and the army’s broken pieces would resort to crime and terrorism to earn their keep.

Kayani’s counsel was that if you want to leave, just leave — we didn’t believe you were going to stay anyway — but don’t do any more damage on your way out. This seemed to be a ubiquitous sentiment across the region. No one bought our argument for sending more troops into Afghanistan, and no one was buying our arguments for leaving. It seemed everyone was getting used to a direction-less America.

How painful then to remember that, for Obama, Afghanistan had started out as the “good war.” A war of necessity that America had to wage to defeat al Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan never harbored terrorists again. Obama’s stance was widely understood at home and abroad to mean that America would do all it could in Afghanistan — commit more money and send more troops — to finish off the Taliban and build a strong democratic state capable of standing up to terrorism. 

Four years later, Obama is no longer making the case for the “good war.” Instead, he is fast washing his hands of it. It is a popular position at home, where many Americans, including many who voted for Obama, want nothing more to do with war. They are disillusioned by the ongoing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan and tired of more than 10 years of fighting. They do not believe war was the right solution to terrorism, and they have stopped putting stock in the scaremongering that the Bush administration used to fuel its foreign policy. There is a growing sense that America has no interests in Afghanistan vital enough to justify a major ground presence.

It was to court public opinion that Obama first embraced the war in Afghanistan. And when public opinion changed, he was quick to declare victory and call the troops back home. His actions from start to finish were guided by politics, and they played well at home. Abroad, however, the stories the United States tells to justify its on-again, off-again approach do not ring true to friend or foe. They know the truth: America is leaving Afghanistan to its own fate. America is leaving even as the demons of regional chaos that first beckoned it there are once again rising to threaten its security.

America has not won this war on the battlefield, nor has the country ended it at the negotiating table. America is just washing its hands of this war. We may hope that the Afghan army the United States is building will hold out longer than the one that the Soviet Union built, but even that may not come to pass. Very likely, the Taliban will win Afghanistan again, and this long, costly war will have been for naught.


When Holbrooke died in December 2010, Clinton kept his office alive, but the White House managed to take over AfPak policy, in part by letting the Pentagon run Afghanistan and the CIA, Pakistan. Clinton wanted John Podesta, an influential Democratic Party stalwart who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, to succeed Holbrooke. But Podesta was too influential (including with the president) and too high-profile, and that would have made it difficult for the White House to manage him and snatch AfPak policy. The White House vetoed the choice.

Vali Nasr is the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011 and is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.
Twitter: @vali_nasr

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