We shouldn’t be so hard on US envoy Richard Holbrooke’s single-mindedness. On the contrary, he’s a multi-faceted diplomat whose confrontational style hides a flair for the subtle.
Picking through the political and media wreckage of Afghanistan’s national election in August is a challenge. Propaganda was bound to divide American and Afghan officials when so many forces were competing over limited power and resources. Believing everything, then, would be a mistake.
But it’s hard not to read deeply into the alleged altercation between Hamid Karzai and Holbrooke.
Conflict between Holbrooke and the Afghan government didn’t spring up overnight. Back in 2007 Holbrooke told the Brussels Forum, “I can sense a tremendous deterioration in the standing of the government. Afghans are now universally talking about their disappointment with Karzai. Let's be honest with ourselves... the government must succeed or else the Taliban will gain from it.”
Holbrooke then described Karzai’s government as "weak” in February 2009 during his first private trip to Afghanistan as Special envoy. These actions plus opinion pieces Holbooke had penned created hostility before widespread allegations of fraud began to surface after the August 20th election.
Some analysts suggested that the White House used Holbrooke to confront Karzai and raise the issue of a run-off, to which Karzai exploded on.
Holbrooke spend the next three months under what the media perceived as diplomatic exile and didn’t speak of Karzai until mid-October, when he described their relationship as “fine,” “correct,” and “appropriate.” These aren’t words that describe a truly healthy relationship.
But the point isn’t Holbrooke’s initial reaction. It’s his 180 afterward.
The plan seemed to be laid from the beginning. After infuriating Karzai by raising the prospect of a runoff, Holbrooke reversed and claimed the level of fraud was “natural.” Two weeks later he warned not to “jump to conclusions” and hinted at opposing a run-off. The Taliban and al-Qaeda, he said, would benefit too much.
As if they would benefit less from a fraudulent election and illegitimate government.
Months later Holbrooke welcomed a run-off with open arms, saying a credible government is critical to America’s war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He anticipated less fraud because General McChrystal is, “going to go all-out to help make this a success,” despite the fact that McChrystal failed to prevent a successful first round and that Obama’s surge was months away from being approved.
Fast forward another few months, past a canceled run-off that further weakened Karzai’s legitimacy, and two failed cabinets. Last week Holbrooke claimed that Karzai isn’t as important as made out to be even though said hype is largely attributed to the Obama administration.
Afghanistan’s government is more important than Karzai, he says, because one man can’t end corruption. “Corruption is a huge problem in Afghanistan.”
Apparently not huge enough. Holbrooke confirmed at the US embassy in Kabul that “the government is legitimate” and called Karzai, “the legitimately chosen, legitimate leader of this country. I honestly believe it's time to move on, and get on with why we're here.”
This is an amazing statement. Not only do 60% of Afghans disagree with him, according to the recent “happiness” poll, the term “why we’re here” doesn’t apply to them. Holbrooke, in effect, is telling Afghans and Americans to get over election fraud and get on with Obama’s surge.
Kai Eide, soon-to-be former UN Special Representative in Afghanistan, warned, “It is a handicap that you will now go on for a protracted period without a fully-functioning government in one of the most challenging periods the government has been in since the fall of the Taliban.”
Once again the military aspect is trumping the political aspect of US counterinsurgency, and at the worst possible time. Holbrooke’s subtle evolution from Karzai hater to Karzai lover isn’t so subtle upon retrospect.
A more obvious ruse, and similarly militaristic, involves Hakimullah Mehsud, “one of the worst people on earth.” Holbrooke has rolled out a variation of this line - “he’s a very bad person” - for the last three days. “I want to stress how strongly we feel about this man and that group,” he told reporters amid swirling rumors of Hakimullah’s death. “Absolutely vicious.”
As if anyone in on Earth was unclear about how America feelings towards the TTP.
What’s unclear is why America felt the wise course of action was kill the less vicious Baitullah and replace him with Hakimullah, an al-Qaeda disciple and loose cannon. Holbrooke acts if this happened by accident, but those peering through the darkness can make out the feint outline of controlled chaos.
He made sure everyone knew Hakimullah turned the Pakistani people against the Taliban without mentioning who opened the throne for him. Rather than take any blame for the unpredictable nature of drone strikes, Holbrooke pounds into our skulls how terrible Hakimullah is and that he should be eliminated at all costs.
At this point he’s speaking purely for the CIA, jointly targeted by the TTP and al-Qaeda. Holbrooke can’t have anyone doubting that America’s revenge is legitimate or that killing Hakimullah would be a great victory. We aren’t supposed to question drones, period - even if a wiser, more controlled TTP emerges from his death.
Nor are supposed to question the very essence of America’s war in West Asia. For those wondering where “Afpak” came from, look no further than Richard Holbrooke.
“We often call the problem AfPak, as in Afghanistan Pakistan,” he wrote in Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, Spring 2008. “This is not just an effort to save eight syllables. It is an attempt to indicate and imprint in our DNA the fact that there is one theater of war, straddling an ill-defined border, the Durand Line, and that on the western side of that border, NATO and other forces are able to operate.”
The disturbing nature of this statement goes far beyond Holbrooke’s normal mischief - who is “we?” The term “Afpak” is an explicit attempt to control how Americans think - mind-control - and a success at that. The message seeped into Obama’s strategy and “Afpak” went mainstream as soon as he appointed Holbrooke special envoy of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Islamabad lamented this turn of events as the term played a key role in shifting America’s war into Pakistan, but Americans should be no less concerned. We must give credit where credit is due. Since we’re quick to degrade US military operations, we must similarly laud psychological warfare.
It’s just unfortunate that the target is Americans.