Our Man in Kabul

At 5 P.M. on a weekday in Oak Grove, Kentucky, not far from Fort Campbell, a dark-haired woman is standing in front of her house on Artic Avenue. She watches her dog run through the yard. Inside, her 3-year-old son waits. She tells me that her husband is coming back from Afghanistan in a few days. He has been deployed three times, and he will probably be sent over again. When I ask when his fourth deployment will be, she shrugs her shoulders.

"Who knows," she says, declining to give her name for fear it will get her husband into trouble with the military. "We're the last ones to know anything."

As soldiers and their spouses frequently announce, they signed up for this life. They know the risks. The troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan to improve security and reduce violence, and sometimes soldiers and marines die in the process. Still, the effects of the wars, with their multiple deployments, instability, and loss of life, are palpable on Artic Avenue. The house across the street is empty -- its former inhabitant, an Army private, died of a gunshot wound in Iraq in 2005. Another soldier who lived down the street also died in the Middle East, a retired officer tells me. "For Rent" signs are everywhere, stuck in the yards of small brick houses with overgrown yards.

There was a time when Iraq was the assignment that military families really dreaded. Now, finally, the military infrastructure in Iraq has been built up. If a soldier is injured in a suicide bombing, he can be transported to a combat-support hospital and undergo surgery within 20 minutes of the explosion. But in Afghanistan, conditions are more primitive, and soldiers have a tougher time getting medical attention when injured. Not many people want to go to Iraq -- but Afghanistan may be worse.

"Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been," Barack Obama wrote in July 2008 in a New York Times op-ed. "As president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan. We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there." It is possible, of course, that he overstated the case to show that he would be a formidable commander in chief. Obama opposed the war in Iraq, but he did not want to be seen as a peacenik. An aggressive military strategy in Afghanistan would dispel that notion.

Political posturing aside, there were legitimate reasons to call for more troops in Afghanistan. The number of Afghan civilian deaths jumped by almost 40 percent over a one-year period, according to a United Nations survey, from 1,500 in 2007 to more than 2,000 in 2008. Most of these people were killed by the Taliban and other insurgents in the region.

Complicating matters is the inseparable, insoluble problem of neighboring Pakistan. Authorities in that country recently handed over control of the Swat Valley region to the Taliban. This puts the Taliban within 100 miles of Islamabad -- and the officials there who control the nuclear warheads. But perhaps the biggest problem in Pakistan is that the country essentially has two governments: One is led by President Asif Ali Zardari, and the other is an unelected body made up of shadowy intelligence officers and generals that, as Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at New America Foundation, explained March 4 before the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, "controls almost all decisions related to Pakistan's national security and foreign policy." The challenge for the U.S. is to find a way to work with Zardari while other, more powerful figures are operating in the background.

Obama has placed diplomatic control of this volatile situation in the hands of Richard Holbrooke. As the special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Holbrooke is arguably one of the most important figures in U.S. foreign policy. Up until this point, discussions about Afghanistan have centered on Gen. David H. Petraeus' military strategy and his efforts to weaken the hold of the Taliban. That strategy is currently under review, however. And diplomacy is more important than ever, particularly in the short term.

Holbrooke's role in brokering the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement for Bosnia turned him into a larger-than-life figure in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. For this reason, he is no ordinary envoy. (Indeed, he secured for himself the title "special representative," which means he answers to the president, not just the State Department.) Holbrooke exudes American confidence and brashness. He is a man who does not know the word "failure," says Kenneth Bacon, a former assistant secretary of defense who knew Holbrooke during the Dayton peace process. "It is not in his vocabulary." He is also known as a tough negotiator who is willing to talk to anyone if he thinks it will yield results. Recent reports indicate he may soon be talking to Taliban leaders.

The main goal for the United States is to fight Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama has made it clear that this requires more than military might -- which is where Holbrooke comes in. He is tasked with strengthening relations with Afghanistan and improving the United States' image in that country. This will put him in a stronger position when he encourages leaders in their efforts to fight the violent extremists and to crack down on corruption in their own government and police forces. In the wake of NATO airstrikes that have killed civilians, turning many Afghans against the United States, Holbrooke must reassure the Afghan authorities -- and the public, too -- that the United States is doing everything it can to protect noncombatants. It is a formidable undertaking. For hundreds of years, foreign statesmen, as well as troops, have entered Afghanistan and tried to fix things, inspiring Kipling-esque stories of their failures.

The history does not seem to faze Holbrooke. Indeed, he has shown extraordinary optimism about the prospects for change. In 2008, for a Foreign Affairs article, he wrote, "The situation in Afghanistan is far from hopeless. But as the war enters its eighth year, Americans should be told the truth: it will last a long time -- longer than the United States' longest war to date, the 14-year conflict (1961-75) in Vietnam." The U.S. needs to develop a new approach to four major problems, he continued: the underdeveloped tribal areas of western Pakistan, the powerful drug lords who dominate much of Afghanistan's political system, the inadequately trained Afghan national police, and "the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government." Each of these problems must be approached with a combination of military might and diplomatic finesse, Holbrooke noted. Yet, despite warnings that the situation in Afghanistan looks eerily familiar (a recent Newsweek cover story on the country was ominously titled "Obama's Vietnam"), he clearly feels the best course is still full speed ahead.

In the coming months, Americans will find out whether Obama is willing to support the level of commitment that Holbrooke has espoused. And military families in Kentucky and across the nation will discover what Holbrooke's ideas mean for them.


On a blustery winter evening at the Century Club in New York, Richard Holbrooke chats with guests at a book party. A bartender pours glasses of Côtes du Rhône, and a waiter brings around a tray of parsley-garnished lamb chops. Dressed in a pale-pink shirt, unbuttoned at the top, and with his right hand jammed into his pocket, Holbrooke, 67, a New Yorker, seems completely at home. Indeed, he is a longtime member of the Century Club, which has been a popular haunt for members of the foreign-policy establishment for decades.

In the midst of the elegant surroundings, an oil painting titled "Flies," showing five human skulls on a gray background, hangs on a back wall. The artwork has a sense of foreboding -- and so does the book being celebrated: Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, the story of how the national security adviser to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (and a friend of Holbrooke's) tried to come to terms with the policy mistakes that led to the Vietnam tragedy.

Holbrooke's coming of age as a diplomat was shaped by Vietnam, and his career has long been intertwined with his own efforts, as well as those of others in the field of statecraft, to understand the Vietnam experience so that it will not be repeated. At age 22, Holbrooke worked for the U.S. Foreign Service in the Mekong Delta. He also spent time in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon learning the hard lessons of the Vietnam War: more than 60,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese dead by the end. The debacle was, in part, created by men like Holbrooke, then a young Foreign Service officer, and Bundy, an influential statesman -- the so-called best and the brightest, a phrase coined by journalist David Halberstam to describe those from elite universities and think tanks who pulled the United States into the quagmire.

At the Century Club, the specter of Vietnam hung over the room. Shortly after the party began, Holbrooke gave a short speech. He mentioned the conflict in Iraq, or, as he said, the one "we're going to disengage from." Then he mentioned the conflict in Afghanistan -- the one, he said, "that we are determined to win." It was a line that Americans have heard before.

Holbrooke assumes his role as ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan at a time when Americans are facing an urgent question: Is this the right war? His colleagues say that despite his brashness in person and on the page, Holbrooke has struggled with the mistakes of the past, particularly in Vietnam. Most officials who were involved in that conflict, almost regardless of their level in the government, have gone through some period of self-examination -- though some took longer than others. In Lessons in Disaster, Bundy finally attempts to assess his own role in the conflict. "My wish now is that we had done less," Bundy says. "I wish that I had understood that more clearly."

Holbrooke, too, had to acknowledge some unpleasant truths that emerged from his Vietnam experience. In his review of Lessons in Disaster for The New York Times Book Review, Holbrooke describes a February 1965 evening in Saigon when he had dinner with Bundy: In the "dining room that night were people far less intelligent than Bundy, but they lived in Vietnam, and they knew things he did not. Yet if they could not present their views in quick and clever ways, Bundy either cut them off or ignored them. A decade later, after I had left the government, I wrote a short essay for Harper's Magazine titled 'The Smartest Man in the Room Is Not Always Right.' I had Bundy -- and that evening -- in mind."

Vietnam taught Holbrooke "a certain humility," says James F. Dobbins, director of RAND's International Security and Defense Policy Center, who served as a special envoy for Afghanistan during the Bush administration, "a recognition that even with all the power and influence that the U.S. wields, it can still have unhappy outcomes. But that diplomacy is also an important tool. And personalities make a difference."

But Holbrooke's humility has its limits. As a diplomat, he has relied heavily on his own ability to persuade other people, even the most recalcitrant, of the merits of his views. "He's someone whose approach to diplomacy is one of sort of grabbing people by the scruff of the neck and shaking them till they indicate a willingness to do what Holbrooke wants to have done," says Boston University's Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

Like the best and the brightest of the 1960s and 1970s, Holbrooke seems to have led a charmed life. He grew up in Scarsdale, New York, and went to Brown University before gravitating toward the Foreign Service. After his tour in Vietnam, he worked in the Johnson White House. Over the years, he climbed to the highest levels of diplomacy, eventually serving as U.N. ambassador and as assistant secretary of state. During the years that President George W. Bush was in office, Holbrooke worked for Perseus LLC, a private-equity firm, and served as chairman of the Asia Society.

In his current role, Holbrooke has emphasized the need to examine Afghanistan and Pakistan not as separate issues, as diplomats have done in the past, but as one that can only be resolved by considering both countries (known in foreign-policy circles by the single name "Afpak"), as well as the role of other nearby nations such as India. "He has seen the cost of conflict in terms of human lives with his own eyes going back to the early 1960s in Vietnam," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told The New York Times. "And I know from many, many hours of conversation, going back many years, that he has a pre-existing concern for Afghanistan. As a young diplomat, he traveled through Afghanistan. During the last eight years as he pursued his many interests, and particularly his work on behalf of the Asia Society, he returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan and the neighbors."

Holbrooke's mission in the region is part of the larger debate about the use of U.S. power. President Bush championed the United States as a nation-builder and used that role as part of his justification for leading the country into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like his predecessor, President Obama believes that the United States can act as a positive force in the world. But Obama has said he wants to approach the matter of U.S. intervention in a more sophisticated way, involving the support of other nations and also negotiations with countries such as Iran. For that, he will rely heavily on Holbrooke. "His job is to figure out what is the proper combination of tactics and strategy to achieve this goal," Kenneth Bacon says.

Not everyone agrees that the United States can, or should, continue to exert its influence on the world stage. "The U.S. is a declining power," Bacevich says. Nevertheless, he adds, "not only Holbrooke, but all of the senior appointments that Obama has made, probably reject that view."


Obama has said that he and his top aides are postponing major announcements about their Afghanistan strategy while they review their options. In the meantime, he is sending in additional troops to try to tamp down the violence in that country. This may seem like a holding pattern. Yet there is nothing provisional about the 17,000 soldiers and marines who will soon be deployed (a 50 percent increase of the current troop levels) or the 581 men and women in the armed forces who have already died as a result of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The long-term objectives are clear: Afghanistan needs a stable, nationwide government that is able to control the terrorist elements and violent extremists -- and an economy that is not based on the poppy trade. Pakistan also needs a unified government -- one that can protect human rights, live peaceably with India, and control its own military and intelligence service as well as its nuclear weapons. As a special representative, Holbrooke will attempt to encourage Afghan and Pakistani leaders to reach these goals. In the meantime, U.S. diplomatic efforts will likely focus on smaller efforts, such as sending agricultural advisers to help Afghan leaders develop crops other than poppies. Pakistan is finally seeing the results -- in education and road-building projects -- of the $750 million that Bush dedicated to developing its tribal areas, which have been a breeding ground for terrorists. Obama has promised to increase these funds this month. These undertakings are not as significant as the creation of functioning central governments -- but they are steps in that direction, and they require U.S. diplomacy. The question about Holbrooke is whether he can be humble enough to settle for piecemeal accomplishments.

For all the talk about Afghanistan turning into another Vietnam, the best comparison is actually closer in time and geography: Iraq. The counterinsurgency tactics that were used in Iraq, ranging from the elimination of so-called high-value targets to the training of local security forces, are integral parts of the developing military strategy in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, U.S. forces tried to obtain information from people in local villages and towns to help them track down high-value targets. Some of these suspects were killed in airstrikes. Others were captured and brought in for questioning. In a similar manner, U.S. forces have attacked houses and buildings in Afghanistan in an attempt to capture high-value targets and have inadvertently killed civilians in the process. Many military planners believe that -- with just a little fine-tuning -- these tactics, which were deemed successful in Iraq, can be replicated in Afghanistan. (Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently announced that the U.S. is using a base in Pakistan to send out CIA Predator aircrafts to patrol the area and eliminate high-value targets.) And with the nuclear weapons in the region, the stakes are perhaps even higher.

Holbrooke knows as well as anyone who has visited Afghanistan that existing local police are simply not able to tamp down the violence or to contain the insurgents. So, just as American soldiers and marines have done in Iraq, they are now attempting to train security forces in Afghanistan. "The only way we're going to win this thing is to get the police stood up," a marine told me, remembering 2006 when he was helping to train Iraqi police officers. Many of the marines who helped train police officers in Iraq are working toward a similar goal in Afghanistan, hoping to have a critical mass of military and local police ready before the fall elections. "You don't have true security till you have a cop on every corner," one marine says. "Not a soldier on every corner."

The success of these tactics in Afghanistan will depend partly on resources. The U.S. poured huge numbers of troops and cash into Iraq in order to achieve some measure of stability in that country. The violence in Iraq was so severe that it took a significant number of additional troops -- the surge -- to instill a sense of security. The U.S. also spent a lot of money on monthly stipends to the so-called Sons of Iraq to ensure that they would help keep the peace, as well as millions of dollars (exact numbers are not known) in payments to local tribal leaders through U.S. contracts for reconstruction and other projects. Are Americans willing to also make that kind of commitment to Afghanistan? Before leaders have to answer that question, they are banking on Holbrooke achieving his goals in the country.

Whether the diplomatic lessons of Vietnam and the strategic lessons of Iraq have any resonance in Afghanistan remains to be seen. As Gen. Sir Gerald Templer, a British commissioner who served in Malaya, wrote in 1952, "The shooting side of the business is only 25 percent of the trouble and the other 75 percent lies in getting the people of this country behind us." Those words have rung true for the United States in every conflict since Vietnam. Gaining the support of the local population in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and making sure that the new American policy in these countries wins supporters, not enemies -- is at the heart of Holbrooke's mission.

Back in the United States, soldiers in Oak Gove, Kentucky, and servicemen and women in other cities and towns are preparing for deployments to Afghanistan, but their ranks are being slowly depleted through attrition and fatigue (and death). The American public will be eager to see benchmarks of success. "America will show impatience with Afghanistan, especially in times of domestic economic travails," says Bruce Hoffman, a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University. "And progress has to be achieved in a short period of time."

But perhaps the quickest progress will be made with a time-honored wartime technique of previous administrations: redefining success. In the past, the markers of progress in Afghanistan have been the establishment of a functioning democracy and the creation of a hospitable place from which U.S. military forces can fight terrorism. RAND's James Dobbins sets a different tone. "We'll be succeeding when there are less civilians getting killed next year than there were this year," he says.

It is a more humane kind of measurement -- and perhaps easier to achieve. But of all the agonizing series of tactical and diplomatic dilemmas facing Obama, Holbrooke, and Petraeus in Afghanistan and Pakistan, perhaps the biggest problem is within themselves. Americans always think there is a solution to these endlessly complex conflicts of nation-building. And sometimes, there isn't one.