An expert's point of view on a current event.

What Vali Nasr Gets Wrong

A former State Department insider has written a blistering account of the Obama administration’s missteps in Afghanistan. But is he right?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News
Mark Wilson/Getty Images News
Mark Wilson/Getty Images News

Former State Department Advisor Vali Nasr has set Washington abuzz with his gloves-off denunciation of the Obama administration's conduct of foreign policy, in particular the war in Afghanistan. Rarely does a recently former government official let loose with such an unalloyed vilification of the administration he served -- especially when it is still in power.

Former State Department Advisor Vali Nasr has set Washington abuzz with his gloves-off denunciation of the Obama administration’s conduct of foreign policy, in particular the war in Afghanistan. Rarely does a recently former government official let loose with such an unalloyed vilification of the administration he served — especially when it is still in power.

But “The Inside Story of how the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan” is more conventional than it may at first appear. Nasr’s is merely the latest salvo in ongoing interagency skirmishing to define the narrative on Afghanistan, to tell a story that lays the blame for the policy’s failure at someone else’s door.

In this case, the originality is that the tale’s main villain is not the military, but the White House (albeit described as bewitched by the military). The hounded victims are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Richard Holbrooke — who happen to have been Nasr’s friends and bosses.

What this account is missing — what so many such accounts are missing — is the humility and intellectual honesty to take a candid look inward, to strive for a nuanced assessment of our shared missteps, in what I, like Nasr, believe will be a grim outcome for Afghanistan, and ultimately for international security.

When Nasr was senior advisor to Holbrooke, I was serving in a similar capacity, first for two commanders of the international troops in Afghanistan, and then for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I took up these positions on the heels of seven years working in downtown Kandahar, where I ran an NGO and then a manufacturing cooperative.

So my perspective on the events Nasr describes, and in which I participated, differs from his in two respects. I came to them bathed in the aspirations of ordinary Afghans, in their attitudes to what was happening in their country, and to the international intervention. And I was privy to the actual views of senior military officials regarding the appropriate balance between military and civilian instruments of power in conducting the Afghanistan mission.

Like many civilians, Nasr paints the military in primary colors, as a monolithic, power-hungry leviathan. “The military,” he declares, “wanted to stay in charge.” Somewhat more remarkably, he depicts President Barack Obama as enthralled by the Pentagon, “not keen on showing daylight between the White House and the military.”

That is not how many officers I worked with experienced it. I myself remember a White House skepticism of top military officers and their recommendations that, while perhaps justified, was every bit as visceral as Holbrooke’s. The instantaneous firing of one of the Army’s most prized officers, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, after offensive remarks by his staff were featured in a Rolling Stone article, does not attest to a president welded to the military. (Regardless, again, of how justified McChrystal’s recall may have been.)

Far from railroading the bureaucracy to gain unfettered control of the Afghanistan campaign, military officers I encountered, to a one, called for more civilian input, not less. At every echelon — from battalion commanders who begged the State Department officials sharing their bases for a better picture of local political dynamics, to senior officers and Defense Department officials who pushed for (and offered to help fund) a civilian surge, to the top brass in Kabul and Washington waiting in vain for a coherent strategic policy to emerge from U.S. civilian leadership — I saw military officers dismayed, not delighted, at being the lead, and sometimes the only, actors.

In the first half of 2009, for example, Holbrooke and U.S. Embassy officials pooh-poohed the notion that fraud might characterize the upcoming presidential election. I would whip out the 10 voter registration cards I had bought in Kandahar in a vain effort to attract their attention. The diplomatic leadership persistently refrained from imagining any steps that might deter the electoral violations before it was too late.

Increasingly alarmed, as evidence mounted that the fraud would be so massive, so egregious, and so humiliating to Afghan voters as to risk undermining the credibility of the entire mission, some colleagues and I drew up a list of ways the thousands of international soldiers and officers under NATO command (ISAF) might make a positive impact. I will never forget the look on then-ISAF commander Gen. David McKiernan’s face when presented with that list. A dull ache clouded his eyes. I have to fight a war, it conveyed. And I have to secure an election in the midst of it. And you want me to see to its credibility, too?

This type of reaction, versions of which I got from numerous officers over the years, points to one of the shortcomings in the standard military analysis. There was a tendency among many of my colleagues in uniform to see military and civilian action as unconnected, a notion that the military could enter a zone, “bring” security, and then stand aside while an army of civilians swarmed in and “brought” development and governance. (That view of hermetically divided spheres of activity, note, was shared by many civilians.)

Of course, Afghan dynamics were more interconnected than that. But it was hard for military commanders to take accurate stock of the impact their relationships with Afghan counterparts, military and civilian, might have on security and good governance. Officers contracted for work and supplies, delivered development resources through local agents, purchased intelligence and gravel and gasoline — without thinking through the potentially distorting impact of these arrangements.

I don’t disagree, in other words, — and not a single military officer I know would disagree — with Nasr’s contention that the Afghanistan mission suffered perhaps fatally from a lack of input by diplomatic leaders. But the real question is, input to what end? What was, and what should have been, the content of that input?

Nasr narrates the gleeful launch of Holbrooke’s SRAP office at Foggy Bottom, the “creative chaos” of eager young men and women spawning designs for the placement of cell-phone towers or the use of virtual bank accounts for Afghan National Police salaries. A lot of those ideas were good, many made a difference. But they were, to a large extent, hopelessly lost in the weeds.

So was much of Holbrooke’s input to interagency debate. Nasr decries his boss’s exclusion from important meetings. But while the girth of the folders Holbrooke regularly table-dropped at such meetings is accurately recorded, Nasr misses the takeaway. The SRAP office’s contributions to policy debates were so compendious, so full of arcane, not to say loony, detail on the specifics of, for instance, how instant messaging should be used for information operations, or how a specific agricultural development project should be structured, as to be completely impenetrable.

This type of detail is inappropriate to senior national security decisionmaking. It is the level of programming the embassy should have been hammering out for execution in the field. Perhaps it’s no wonder Amb. Karl Eikenberry, or other participants in those meetings, grew irritated. Holbrooke and Clinton should have been aiming their thinking at a much more strategic level.

They should have been considering two fundamental drivers that had been fueling the burgeoning conflict in Afghanistan.

One was the increasingly bald, abusive, and structured corruption of the Afghan government. The notion that Afghans would take risks on behalf of such a government, when they were “slapped on one cheek by the Taliban, and on the other by [that] government,” as several put it to me, when they were shaken down, with a literal or figurative kick in the teeth, just about every time they encountered a government official, when they watched President Hamid Karzai protect government officials from repercussions for egregious crimes, release them from jail, or demote police officers or prosecutors who took action against them, simply defies logic.

The other and somewhat related driver of the conflict has been the Pakistani military’s policy of helping the Taliban to regroup, retrain, and plan and execute attacks inside of Afghanistan, and the exploitation of this growing Afghan disaffection with the Karzai regime to help the Taliban and allied extremist groups regain a foothold inside the country. The objective of this policy was to regain, most probably through eventual negotiations, a degree of the proxy control of Afghanistan that Pakistan had enjoyed before 2001.

Both of those problems are diplomatic, not military. But neither Holbrooke nor Clinton ever produced a serious analysis of them, or put their staffs to work developing coherent approaches for addressing them. Instead, the diplomats joined other civilian officials in the generalized obsession over what number of men and women in uniform — American and Afghan — should be deployed where and on what timeline.

Endless hours of the extended 2009 interagency debate Nasr alludes to were taken up with such military tactics. All the key civilian leaders had their considered opinions, but seemed less enthusiastic about discussing the issues that fell in their lane. Eikenberry ultimately dispatched cables that quite accurately diagnosed many of the problems with the Karzai regime. But still he failed to provide any policy options for addressing them, beyond “don’t order a troop surge.”

In this regard, I agree with Nasr that President Obama failed to press for the right options. He failed to get his diplomats to do their jobs and generate a strategic framework within which military action, whatever its size, might make sense.

It was military officials who, to a degree, tried to expand the aperture. According to the New York Times, Gen. David Petraeus, who was CENTCOM commander at the time, compared the Karzai government to a “crime syndicate” during that 2009 debate. He and others urged then National Security Advisor James Jones to allocate more time at Principals’ Committee meetings to discussing the civilian dimensions of the policy. A strategic review of the campaign, produced by McChrystal’s headquarters, identified, alongside the violent insurgency, a “crisis in confidence in the Afghan government” as a threat to mission success.

Where these and other senior military officers might be reproached is in their prideful unwillingness to take their own logic to its natural conclusion. In the end, they predictably defaulted to the traditional military “can-do” attitude — and perhaps to a reckless appetite to try. Despite their reservations, they insisted that given enough men and materiel, they could make this mission work anyway.

How much more valuable would their advice have been if they had explicitly tied their troop request to a viable political strategy — if they had argued that without a policy on Pakistan, without a policy on Afghan government corruption, they did not want that troop surge after all because the sacrifice would quite likely be for naught. But that kind of moral courage failed them.

Nasr’s depiction of vicious personal conflicts and turf wars within the executive branch is delectably lurid. Far be it from me to deny their reality. Or to deny that the Obama White House may have exercised an excessive or insular grip on foreign policy, linking it too closely to domestic electoral considerations.

But the notion that pre-existing partisan animosity toward Holbrooke was a main factor driving policy decisions verges on the paranoid. In fact, deep and passionate philosophical disagreements on the substance divided members of executive branch agencies over how the war should be conducted. And it was these differences of analysis and prescription that shaped the policy debate — not personal rivalry.

Nasr does dwell on two of those. They are the only high-level issues his account takes up. Yet in both cases, for someone of his learning and experience, Nasr’s recipes are startlingly simplistic. The obvious way to bring the war to a successful conclusion, he argues, was to negotiate with the Taliban, and to conciliate Pakistan’s relevant leadership in order to change that country’s longstanding policy of sponsoring violent extremism in pursuit of national security aims.

Nasr’s prescription for negotiating with the Taliban neglects the implications of a basic fact he himself acknowledges: the militants’ intensive, if often fraught, ties to Pakistan’s all-powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI. Nasr writes of negotiations as though the United States would be engaging with an autonomous Afghan entity, not the heavily influenced Pakistani proxy most Taliban leaders constitute.

He refers to a moment in the summer of 2010, when, exasperated by her inability to get the issue on the interagency calendar, Clinton personally handed a memo on negotiation to Obama — only to see his approval squelched by the National Security staff. In fact, more than six months earlier, U.S. government officials had been reaching out at least indirectly to a number of senior Taliban commanders. But almost immediately, the ISI arrested every one of them. Top Pakistani leaders had no intention of letting control of any potential negotiations slip from their grasp.

It is unlikely the ISI incurred the risk and expense of reconstituting the Taliban just for the fun of it. The objective was to ensure the Pakistani government a seat at the table whenever negotiations began — as Islamabad predicted they inevitably would. Nasr’s formula walks right into this trap. It would have the effect of rewarding Pakistan’s policy of using extremist violence to advance its objectives — a.k.a. its state sponsorship of terrorism.

It is for this reason, not because they wanted “to stay in charge,” as Nasr puts it, that many military officers balked at the SRAP office’s insistence on negotiation with the Taliban as the only path to salvation.

As the idea was formulated by Holbrooke’s team, such negotiations, focused solely on the Taliban, would also have the effect of marginalizing all the other Afghan constituencies with legitimate grievances against the Karzai government. The result would be to reward violent extremism, and leave those who to date have opted against it no choice but to arm up in anticipation of a deal they were not consulted about, and whose terms (a return to indirect Pakistani control of much of Afghanistan) they could not live with. Even in their former stronghold of Kandahar, the Taliban are largely viewed with distaste, and are not considered to authentically represent the people. A much better formula for reconciliation would enlarge the scope to include all the significant forces in Afghan political life.

Nasr rightly derides some military officers’ reflex to apply tactics that seemed to work in Iraq to vastly different Afghanistan. But he is less thoughtful about whether Holbrooke was seeking to apply tactics that seemed to work in the Balkans — where Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs did in fact function as autonomous entities — to Afghanistan, where a proxy relationship has been so key to the dynamics of the country’s iterated waves of conflict.

As for “changing Pakistan,” on that point Nasr echoes the George W. Bush administration’s approach, which consisted of dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell and a “with us or against us” ultimatum after 9/11/2001, and then blindly accepting Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s profession that, looking at it that way, he allowed he was probably with us. For years, I watched his intelligence services deliver up an al Qaeda Arab once every few months, to U.S. accolades, while they were busily reweaving the threads of Taliban networks. Pakistani officials were warmly conciliated during that first half-decade of the war, but they did not abandon their steadfast policy of using asymmetric extremist violence to help them punch above their weight internationally.

Concretely and consistently confronting the Pakistani leadership on its use of extremist proxies, or President Karzai on the criminally extractive nature of his government — and not just in occasional spurts of public huffing and puffing — would have taken a significant investment of political courage and fortitude. And those are attributes that I did not see much in evidence among senior U.S. civilian officials.

Nasr is correct that civilian instruments of power, including intelligence and economic interaction as well as diplomacy, must play a more robust role in U.S. foreign policy. But for them to do so, it is not enough for the military’s role to shrink, or for the White House to be nicer to the secretary of state. Diplomats have to up their game. And some candid introspection might be a good place to start. A joyous cacophony of talented youngsters is not sufficient to develop high-level policy on our country’s longest war. Civilian agencies need to cultivate and empower deep area expertise. They need to shatter the brittle bureaucratic rigidities that characterize their systems, and provide graduated autonomy to rising leaders. They need to advocate aggressively and effectively for increased resources. But most of all, they need to be willing to take moral and political risks when it really matters.

Sarah Chayes is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.

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