The South Asia Channel

The bull in Afghanistan’s china shop

In his compelling account in Foreign Policy of his time working for the Obama administration, Vali Nasr portrays his boss, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, as an energetic and skillful diplomat whose efforts to begin peace talks with the Taliban were systematically undermined and sidelined by a White House more concerned about domestic politics and more persuaded ...


In his compelling account in Foreign Policy of his time working for the Obama administration, Vali Nasr portrays his boss, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, as an energetic and skillful diplomat whose efforts to begin peace talks with the Taliban were systematically undermined and sidelined by a White House more concerned about domestic politics and more persuaded by the Pentagon’s strategy of sending more troops than a strategy of “patient, credible diplomacy”. According to Nasr, Holbrooke died literally with the secret to ending the Afghan war on his lips, unheard by Barack Obama, “the president who did not have the time to listen.”

It is to Holbrooke’s credit as a leader and as a man that someone as passionate and eloquent as Nasr has taken the task of defending his legacy. But is he persuasive?  In reading his article, I often found myself drawing exactly the opposite conclusion than he did from the same anecdote. For example, he vents his frustration at Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who he says obstructed Holbrooke because Lute “thought he knew Afghanistan better”. But since Lute had been covering Afghanistan in the National Security Council since 2007 and had previously served there, he probably did know Afghanistan better than Holbrooke, who was only appointed in 2009. Here, it would be just as easy to perceive Holbrooke as a blowhard, than as the beleaguered victim of a turf war the Nasr portrays. When Nasr describes the “internet start-up” dynamic of Holbrooke’s office, with its “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,” a reasonable person could be excused for seeing in this frenzied creativity a lack of focus and a dissipation of energy that might be fatal to a complex diplomatic endeavor, rather than the laboratory of the solution to Afghan stability that Nasr implies.

For Nasr, Holbrooke had the diplomatic solution to the Afghan war, but he was actively undermined by the administration in pursuing it. My problem with this thesis is that there was an area where Holbrooke did have carte blanche to use his diplomacy, and in my view he used it rather badly. That area was the 2009 Afghan presidential election.

In 2009, I was the Special Assistant to Kai Eide, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). I already had some experience in the Afghanistan. I had first visited Afghanistan in 1994 for a French NGO. I returned in 1995, when I spent a year running a humanitarian project for the same NGO, and returned again in the summer of 1997 to do research. From 2001 to 2011, I worked almost exclusively on Afghanistan for the UN, and had been part of the UN team that set up the 2004 elections. By 2009, when I went to Kabul to work for Eide, I had some knowledge of the country, its recent history, and its elections.

Before meeting Holbrooke, I knew of him only by his reputation: he had negotiated Dayton, he was close to Hillary Clinton, he had visited Afghanistan several times, he thought outside of the box, and he attracted talented staff-all of these qualities that Nasr describes very well. In sum, I had an open mind and I looked forward to what his reputed talents might bring to the Afghan imbroglio, which was becoming increasingly complex as the presidential election approached. We knew that 2009 would be a complicated year and the various parts of the international community in Afghanistan would have to work closely together to get through the election in particular.

It was therefore surprising, in terms of the US-UN relationship, that shortly after his appointment Holbrooke made disparaging public remarks about Eide’s leadership at the annual Munich security conference. Eide, who read them in the press in Kabul, complained immediately to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Jim Jones (with whom he had excellent relationships). They passed them on to Clinton who apparently spoke to Holbrooke. A phone call was set up between Eide and Holbrooke to smooth the waters, but it ended very badly, with the conversation heating quickly and both men hanging up on each other.

A few days later Holbrooke came to Kabul. Holbrooke clearly had no intention to “reset” his relationship with Eide. His first comment on meeting Eide was, “When does your contract expire?” As an observer, I tried to discern the logic in Holbrooke’s antagonism. It only made sense, I thought, if Holbrooke was sure he would be able to get rid of Eide, which is what we suspected that he wanted. But until he achieved that, why wouldn’t he try work with Eide? After all, Eide had a trustful relationship with Karzai, close relations with most of the cabinet, and was in charge of a formal mandate to support the upcoming presidential election. According to Nasr, Holbrooke practiced “the type of patient, credible diplomacy that garners the respect and support of allies.” What I witnessed was an impatience and lack of respect that alienated allies.

When I look back, it strikes me that Holbrooke didn’t really have a plan to get rid of Eide. Instead he substituted his will for a strategy, then acted as if he had already accomplished what he had sought when he clearly had not. By doing so, he sidelined allies without removing his enemies.

Never mind the failed removal of Eide, what about Karzai? Holbrooke gave every impression that he wanted to use the 2009 election to unseat Karzai. Holbrooke’s second question to Eide during that breakfast meeting was who he thought would be a viable alternative to Karzai. (Eide chose not to respond.)The method he selected was to persuade a number of prominent Afghan politicians to run against the incumbent. This strategy became an open secret and a running joke among politicians in Kabul. In his book about his time in Afghanistan, Eide recounts meeting then-Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud at a social event. Eide asked how he was and Massoud responded that he was lonely. “I must be the only person in Kabul whom Holbrooke has not invited to challenge Karzai for the presidency,” he said.

Holbrooke’s decision to encourage  a variety of candidates to run was undoubtedly motivated by Afghanistan’s two-round electoral system, which requires  a candidate to win 50% of the votes in the first round, or the top two vote-getters face of in a second round. Holbrooke surely calculated that a large number of first round candidates would be likely to siphon votes from Karzai, making it more difficult to reach 50%. This was good as far as the political arithmetic went, but it missed several factors that were critical to the Afghan context. First, potential Karzai opponents wanted to be the candidate blessed by America-they wanted to be Queened by America, not to be a pawn among pawns in a grander U.S. strategy to bring Karzai below 50%. Pawns, after all are easily sacrificed once they’ve fulfilled their purpose. And once these candidates realized that Holbrooke was making the same deals with rivals, some of the more serious ones dropped out. Second, Holbrooke underestimated Karzai’s real strength. Just because he didn’t like him, and just because many Afghans were clearly frustrated with their president, didn’t mean that they wouldn’t vote for him in the end.

Again, as with his antagonism toward Eide, I was left wondering whether Holbrooke had a plan, a strategy based on a serious reading of ground truths with options for action based on different scenario
s. Or was this like the cell phone towers and the text messaging for refugees-just part of the constant flow of new ideas?

Once it was clear that Karzai would get the most votes, the objective changed: instead of getting rid of Karzai, it became desirable for Karzai to not win the first round, and go to a run-off instead. Two days after the election, Holbrooke, then-U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and a few advisors came to breakfast at Eide’s Kabul residence. The discussion was mostly about how to plan for the release of the election results, the need to avoid statements that were not founded in actual facts, and so forth. Everyone agreed that no public comment should be made until the official results were out. Holbrooke, nonetheless, argued that given the fraud, the election had to go to a second round to ensure the legitimacy of Karzai’s win. Eide warned him not to raise that with Karzai, whom Holbrooke was scheduled to see later that day. “You have to understand that he sees you as someone trying to get rid of him,” Eide cautioned. Holbrooke dismissed the warnings with a joke. He and Karzai were the best of friends now, he said.

But during his lunch with Karzai, Holbrooke ignored Eide’s advice and mentioned the need for a second round. Karzai was understandably apoplectic. Most of the votes were still being counted. Hardly any preliminary results had come in. Yet Holbrooke was already dictating what outcome would be legitimate and what would not. This seriously damaged an already patchy relationship. An election needs winners and losers, but if it is to serve its political purpose, an election cannot be a means of humiliation.

This controversy was soon overshadowed by what became the real story of the election, the massive fraud that had taken place, which as Sarah Chayes pointed out in her article on Nasr’s piece , was dismissed by Holbrooke in the run-up to the elections. While the fraud prevention measures set in place by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) had failed, the detection measures had worked. What remained were the mitigation measures. Getting them to work was an incredibly painful process that required much negotiation, cajoling, pressure, and creativity on the part of the international community working with the electoral institutions, some that were more cooperative than others.

The four month-crisis that followed the election began with a courageous order from the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to reinstate the fraud triggers it had suspended-in other words, to set aside the votes that were deemed to be tainted by fraud. Weeks of negotiations were spent to get the IEC and the ECC to agree to the terms of an audit of the fraudulent votes. Then both campaigns had to be convinced, and the audit’s methodology painstakingly explained and defended. When the audit was completed, and the results showed Karzai was below 50%, it took several weeks for Karzai to be convinced that the audit was correct. Every day brought winter closer, and the time in which a second round could be held became shorter. The role of the international community in the audit was crucial, as was its role in keeping the main parties engaged in the process. Eide, in particular, played a central role, and was even able to broker a meeting between Karzai and his primary challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to see if, face-to-face, they could find a solution (they couldn’t). But Holbrooke’s actions had taken away or dulled many of the tools needed to solve the crisis. Eide’s credibility was badly damaged by his public disputewith Peter Galbraith over how to handle the electoral crisis (Holbrooke had pressured the UN Secretary-General to appoint Galbraith, an old friend, as Eide’s deputy a few months before). The U.S. embassy in Kabul had been undermined by Holbrooke’s positions. The entire international community was under suspicion by Karzai.

I remember when the crisis finally reached its resolution. I was sitting with Eide and Tom Lynch, a member of the UN election team, in Eide’s residence. He was waiting for a former Taliban to arrive for a meeting. Just before his visitor was due to arrive, Eide received a phone call from Eikenberry. “Come to my residence immediately. I think we have news.” Eide did not want to stand up the Taliban, so he told Lynch and me to represent him. Eikenberry was there, along with the French and British ambassadors and a few embassy aides, waiting expectedly.

But the person who walked into the room a few moments later, saying that after several long nights of negotiation he had convinced Karzai to accept the second round, was not Holbrooke. It was John Kerry. Senator Kerry, while visiting Kabul that week, had managed to earn Karzai’s trust. Karzai asked him to extend his stay while the negotiations over the elections continued. Kerry had become an accidental diplomat, but he played his unexpected role with great skill. Holbrooke, the professional diplomat, had spent all his powder in the early stages of the game. I have no idea where he was when the great Afghan electoral crisis of 2009 was finally resolved, but he was nowhere near the action in Kabul.

It is not surprising that, in his defense of Holbrooke, Nasr focuses on reconciliation – a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. This was the great “what if?” In his defense of Holbrooke, Nasr writes that Holbrooke, just before his death, had “found a way out that just might work”, but refused to tell his wife “until he told the president first”. Then, of course, he died, taking his McGuffin with him. This is amateur movie plotting, not political analysis.

Obama is a convenient scapegoat for the failed reconciliation effort, and on that Nasr makes a strong case. But there is no scapegoat for Holbrooke’s election strategy. Nobody in the White House or the military stood in his way. It was his strategy, which he designed and implemented, on which he took forceful decisions. And yet the end result was to contribute to creating a crisis whose effects still linger. Every time a member of the international community raises with Karzai a legitimate measure that might ensure a better 2014 election, Karzai mentions Holbrooke, and everyone backs off.

Nasr’s Holbrooke was a champion of diplomacy. I would argue that his significant talents were less those of diplomacy, and more those of a gifted translator of American power. Diplomacy requires the navigation of hostilities, the building of alliances, and the seeking of leverage. It is more than a pro-consul-like projection of power, even if that power is projected with intelligence and stubbornness, and appears to achieve results. Both the cynical and the serious definitions of diplomacy emphasize the need to often convince actors to act against what they perceive as their best interest, either by deceit (Sir Henry Wotton: “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country”), distraction (Will Rogers: “diplomacy is saying ‘nice doggy’ until you find a rock”), or deception (Daniele Vare: “diplomacy is the art of letting the other party have things your way”).  All of these involve subtlety, calculation, strategic clarity, and the husbanding of alliances. Those were the skills called for during the 2009 election. In Holbrooke’s way of operating throughout that event, I saw something closer to the opposite of those skills.

The pity is that, if America is indeed weakening-which is Nasr’s larger thesis-it will need much more classical diplomacy and much less Holbrookean bluster. But as long as Holbrooke is held up as the model American diplomat, our foreign policy will seem increasingly like empty thunder, and then we’ll know what weakness really means.

Scott Smith has covered Afghanistan for many years with the United Nations, including as a special assistant to the head of the U
.N. mission there in 2009 and 2010, and is the author of
Afghanistan’s Troubled Transition: Peacekeeping, Politics and the 2004 Presidential Elections. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School for International Public Affairs. The views expressed here are his own.

Scott Smith is the director for Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed are his own.

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