The Wrong Man for the Job
It was early in October 2001, and I had been invited to New York City on behalf of The History Channel for a show in which I was to discuss the situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. I was pitted against a seasoned American diplomat who had made his reputation negotiating peace accords in difficult corners of the world. I felt a little out of place, since my area of expertise was arms control and disarmament, and specifically how arms control was being implemented in Iraq. I had written a few scholarly articles about Afghan-Soviet relations, with a focus on the ethnic and tribal aspects of Afghan politics, and in the mid-1980s I had been an analyst with the Marine Corps component of the rapid deployment force, following very closely the Soviet war against the Afghan mujahedeen, so I wasn’t totally out of my element.
I fully expected to play second fiddle to the veteran diplomat, and appreciated the opportunity to hear his insights into what clearly was a very difficult situation facing the Bush administration. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization had used their status as guests of the Taliban government of Afghanistan to formulate and implement their terrorist attacks against the United States. The question confronting the Bush administration was how best to respond. I had spent some time thinking over the problem and came down firmly against the idea of direct military intervention. History had shown that, since the time of Alexander the Great through the Soviet invasion and occupation, outside forces had fared poorly when they tried to impose their will on the diverse grouping of tribes and ethnic groups that made up Afghanistan.
Our fight, in any case, wasn’t against the people of Afghanistan. To a certain extent, it wasn’t even against the Taliban, since it was al-Qaida, not the Taliban, that had attacked us. Some, including leaders of the Bush administration, were making the case that the Taliban was directly implicated in the attacks since it had provided al-Qaida with a safe haven to plan the events of 9/11. It had yet to be proved that the Taliban was a witting host, however. As a student of the region, I believed that the United States would do well to use tribal concepts of honor to isolate and disenfranchise bin Laden and his Arab outsiders from their Taliban host. If the United States, working through the offices of the Pakistani intelligence services, could convince the Taliban that its hospitality had been abused by al-Qaida — in that the murder of innocents had been committed while under its protection — then Afghan tribal custom and honor and, even more important to the fundamentalist Taliban, Islamic law, dictated that the Taliban revoke the protections and privileges afforded bin Laden and al-Qaida.
I did not believe that the Taliban would impose justice itself, but rather could be convinced, through a combination of logic and economic incentive, to disperse al-Qaida and turn bin Laden and his senior leadership over to a third party, presumably an Islamic nation such as Pakistan or the United Arab Emirates. If a direct approach failed, then covert action, using proxy forces in Pakistan and Iran, would make contact with moderate elements of the Taliban, personified by its foreign minister, to remove the conservative Mullah Omar from power and achieve a more direct result against bin Laden and his cohorts. A new, moderate Taliban leadership would be more than capable of assembling the religious clerics necessary to convene a sharia, or Islamic, court, which would find the actions of al-Qaida to be violations of Islamic law. Also, a loya jirga, or tribal gathering, would revoke the protected status of “guest” enjoyed by bin Laden and his fellow terrorists. The least productive option America could pursue was that of direct military intervention, and I anticipated that the veteran diplomat would concur with that point of view.
What happened, however, was the exact opposite. The diplomat rejected out of hand any sort of diplomacy, arguing that there were only extremists within the ranks of the Taliban. There was, in his opinion, no such thing as a moderate Taliban, and as such the United States had no choice but to lump the Taliban and al-Qaida into a singular target set, and initiate direct military action designed to remove the Taliban from power and destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan. I responded by noting that it would not be an easy thing to separate the Taliban from Afghan society, since the Taliban was a product of Afghan society, and that any military action against the Taliban would only strengthen the bonds between it and al-Qaida, which was of course the last result the United States should be seeking. The diplomat rejected my argument as simplistic and unrealistic. He argued for a military solution, and, of course, that was the result the Bush administration delivered. The diplomat’s name? Richard Holbrooke.
The new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has appointed Holbrooke as the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. With his extensive experience in peacemaking, including negotiating the Dayton Accords, which brought an end to the horrific fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Holbrooke seems an ideal candidate for the complexities represented by the ongoing situation in Afghanistan, as well as by the related unrest in neighboring Pakistan. The presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan also plays to Holbrooke’s perceived strengths, given the role played by NATO in bringing an end to the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. However, at a time when NATO itself questions the viability of the mission in Afghanistan, pushing for a solution emphasizing social and economic stability over military action, the selection of a hawk like Holbrooke is ill-advised. Not only has he demonstrated a lack of comprehension when it comes to the complex reality of Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan), Holbrooke has a history of choosing the military solution over the finesse of diplomacy. The Dayton Accords, after all, were built on the back of a NATO military presence. This does not bode well for the Obama administration.
It is highly doubtful that Holbrooke will bring anything more to the table than cheerleading. President Obama’s stated intention to increase the size of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and to more forcefully assert U.S.-imposed “security” through continued military action in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan is a dangerous scheme, one Holbrooke will enthusiastically support. Reinforcing failure is never a sound solution. Take it from the veteran British military officers who have served in Afghanistan and now advise that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem. Listening to advice like that would go a long way toward developing stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan and neutralizing al-Qaida’s ability to organize and operate in those nations. The British recognize that the Taliban is not the problem, but rather part of the solution to what ails Afghanistan.
There will be no peace without a negotiated settlement that includes the Taliban. To accomplish this, leadership is required which recognizes the Taliban as a force of moderation, and not extremism. Holbrooke does not have a record which indicates he would be willing to consider direct negotiations with the Taliban. He tends to seek military solutions to difficult ethnic-based problems, and he is likely to argue for the deployment of even more U.S. troops to that war-ravaged nation. That would be a historic mistake.
Instability within Afghanistan continues to bleed over into Pakistan. As the United States pushes for a more effective military solution, there will be even greater pressures placed on U.S. leadership to become directly involved in Pakistan. The recent events in Mumbai, where Pakistani-based terrorists killed scores of innocent civilians, only underscore the inherent instability of Pakistan, which is fighting its own internal struggle against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism. Increased American military operations against Taliban and al-Qaida forces operating inside Pakistan will be a direct result of any increased U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Such military operations will only increase the influence of Islamic fundamentalists inside Pakistan, while doing little to halt the efforts of the Taliban inside Afghanistan.
The radicalization of Pakistan has potentially disastrous implications for Pakistani-Indian relations. There is already increased talk about the possibility of war between these two nuclear-armed regional powers. Any conflict between India and Pakistan, nuclear or not, brings with it the likelihood of a breakdown of central authority within Pakistan, and would even further empower radical Islamic fundamentalists. That would bring the possibility that sensitive nuclear material, up to and including a nuclear device, would fall into their control. Such an outcome is the stuff of nightmares.
The cause-and-effect relationship between what the United States does inside Afghanistan and what occurs inside Pakistan cannot be ignored by American policymakers. As such, the goal of any U.S. special envoy to the region should be to stabilize the internal Afghan situation and de-emphasize cross-border military operations into Pakistan. Any effort which embraces the Taliban as part of a new Afghan reality would, by extension, eliminate the need to strike Taliban strongholds inside Pakistan. With the Taliban co-opted as a part of the central Afghan government, the forces of al-Qaida would lose their effectiveness, as any effort to continue to fight in Afghanistan would invariably pit them against their former allies. Reduction of hostilities in Afghanistan would create a similar reduction in hostilities in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan. This in turn would result in a reduction of events which could be used by fundamentalists to justify radical behavior. And a reduction in radical Islamic fundamentalism would in turn allow for a more stable, moderate Pakistani government operating in a manner not only conducive to peace in Afghanistan but also peace with India and the entire region.
To embrace such a policy, the United States needs to contract the services of a U.S. special envoy capable of visionary thinking, one who possesses the political courage to stand up to a president and a secretary of state and argue against bad policy. I do not believe Holbrooke is such a man. As a result, I fear that the Obama administration will find the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan continuing to deteriorate to the detriment of American national security, and will increasingly waste time and energy in a period of so many problems at home and abroad. Afghanistan does not need to be one of these problems, but the selection of Richard Holbrooke as U.S. special envoy bodes ill for the prospect of lasting peace and security in a volatile region.
Scott Ritter, a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, is the author of “Waging Peace” (Nation Books, 2007).