Holbrooke's Exit Strategy

Within hours of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's death, his reported last words appeared nearly everywhere, passing through the Internet at light speed: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan." According to his family, our top diplomat to the region was speaking to his physician. He told her, perhaps, because no one else was listening.

The next day, the State Department portrayed the remarks as brave banter in the face of pain -- not a final message. Regardless, it was clear that Holbrooke had hoped to achieve in Afghanistan something along the lines of his triumph in Dayton after the Bosnian conflict, ending a brutal, messy war with a brutal, messy reconciliation. In Afghanistan, however, he did not have the right set of tools to do that. He died frustrated with a series of basic truths, including this one: Without a better government in Afghanistan, no amount of counterinsurgency will succeed.

While Holbrooke's final message catalyzed scrutiny of the conflict, the facts behind his opinion have been public for months, if not years. The question is: What will anyone do to change the situation?

The United States has no friends in Afghanistan, just well-paid acquaintances. Does anyone disbelieve The Washington Post's relentless chronicler of the conflict, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who recently reported that a flustered President Hamid Karzai, under pressure from the United States, Europe, Pakistan, and the Taliban, recently told visitors, "If I had to choose sides today, I'd choose the Taliban"? We know that officials in Kabul have little faith in America, and their failure to pursue good government of any kind gives little impetus for U.S. confidence.

"It is easy to see how, as long as Afghans consider their country the third most corrupt country on Earth and look elsewhere for the rule of law, insurgents will continue to recruit and recover their losses," Andrew Exum, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq turned national-security scholar, wrote after a recent trip to observe the conflict.

Exum and other analysts can point to some achievements: With new troops provided by the Obama administration, American forces under Gen. David Petraeus have thrown Taliban fighters out of long-held territory, forcing them back to havens in Pakistan. That country, with its nuclear arsenal and divided government, is perhaps a worse place for them. But these same analysts also argue that without political development, there will be no military success. Petraeus -- one of America's great soldiers -- and our forces in Afghanistan will continue to see tactical victories, but those triumphs will mean almost nothing without stability. And there is little stability in the forecast.

So why, then, haven't we just left? There is the fear of giving terrorist groups unchecked space to prepare their next moves, but there are many safe havens and more effective interdictions of these efforts, including rebalanced investments in intelligence and security at home. There is also fear of seeing Pakistan's stability threatened by militant Islamists, but the current strategy doesn't seem to advance that end, especially as elements in the Islamabad government continue to maintain close relations with the Taliban.

The American public can sense the incoherence between our aims and our actual tactics. Public-opinion polls show a majority of Americans think the war is going badly and that troop withdrawals should begin next summer or even sooner. Over Thanksgiving, my Republican father was more worried about the war than I was. Across the country -- even in a time when most of the sacrifice in this war is sharply concentrated on a small number of soldiers and their families -- people are tiring of this fight.

This will be a challenge for the president. He has a tendency to arrive late to the debate, to let Congress kick around an issue or a bill -- whether it be health care, financial reform, or the stimulus -- before coming in to resolve the last conflicts and seal the deal. But he cannot play janitor on this issue. His allies in Congress, like Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, are already expressing worries publicly.

Yet the administration has canceled a planned review of war strategy and made the 2011 deadline to begin withdrawal more a symbol than a concrete goal. Capable officials in Washington -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Holbrooke's own team of experts -- lack either the mandate or the political protection to find a new strategy, hemmed in by deference to military leaders and fear of Republican criticism. In Afghanistan, we seem to be waiting for military force to give us enough room to leave, with "enough room" remaining undefined.

In 1967, Holbrooke wrote that our country's enemies in Vietnam wanted to create conditions where America could no longer win: "a protracted war without fronts or other visible signs of success; a growing need to choose between guns and butter; and an increasing American repugnance at finding, for the first time, their own country cast as 'the heavy.'" In 2009, Holbrooke e-mailed an old boss about Afghanistan: "It's worse than the Nam!"

For all the very real differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan, few things about that passage ring false. The question now is whether U.S. policy-makers will face those trends and act in advance of them or ignore them. While it's true that we have yet to see the casualty levels in Afghanistan that we saw in Vietnam -- a fact mentioned by those putting trust in America's patience -- that's not much of an argument for patience. On Saturday, as Holbrooke underwent emergency surgery, six soldiers were killed when an IED blew up in Kandahar province. All were under 25.

A year ago, I reported on the president's approach to the war in Afghanistan and concluded that "even if his strategy succeeds, he could find himself right where he started: with 100,000 American troops in the middle of a civil war that has little to do with the future of the United States."

That scenario -- and Holbrooke's assessments -- seems frustratingly prescient today.

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