The Inside Story of How the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan
By Vali Nasr, Dean, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University
Reviewed by Ted Wilkinson, American Diplomacy board member
Vali Nasr’s article is not merely an extract of his recently published book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. It is a pretty good summary of the book’s theme – Nasr’s disenchantment with President Obama’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Reminiscing on his two years (2009-2011) working with the late Richard Holbrooke in State while at a book launch at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington on May 3, Nasr concluded that “AfPak,” the internal empire within State created by and for Holbrooke at Secretary Clinton’s insistence, had spawned lots of creative ideas but failed to influence White House decisions.
It failed because the president subjected strategy to domestic political considerations and to the continued “overhang” of Iraq, among other factors.
Nasr believes that the seeds of failure were sown in the 25 hours (and ten senior national security team meetings) of the president’s 2009 Afghan strategy review. The review really focused only on two options—regaining the counterinsurgency initiative through a surge or a more limited focus on counterterrorism favored by the Vice President. The third option negotiationswas never really on the table, although favored by Holbrooke and Clinton. Outgunned in the meetings by the Pentagon, Clinton had to ask for more and bigger color maps, tables and charts, which the president reportedly devoured. Then there was the legacy of Holbrooke’s role in support of Hillary Clinton in the democratic primaries. “At times,” Nasr writes, “it appeared that the White House was more intent on bringing Holbrooke down than in getting the policy right.”
Nevertheless, when the surge was decided, Holbrooke loyally embarked on a campaign to convince others that the U.S. would carry through and stay the course in Afghanistan. The trouble was, “in meeting after meeting,” no one believed him. One friendly ambassador cynically suggested that the U.S. should pay the Afghan warlords off and go home. Others delivered similar messages more subtly. Meanwhile, the White House was giving Holbrooke little support. He was left out of high-level meetings, and there were reports that Karzai was being encouraged to complain about him.
In parallel, Nasr argues, the White House resisted Holbrooke’s and Clinton’s efforts to work with Pakistan. Frustrated with Pakistani duplicity, the White House adopted the tough line favored by the CIA and the military, cutting aid offers and sidelining efforts to enhance cooperation with Islamabad.
Now, two-and-a-half years after Holbrooke’s death, Nasr regrets that “America is leaving Afghanistan to its own fate,” with only “drones in the air to replace boots on the ground.” If anything, the West has even less leverage to achieve reasonable negotiating goals: Taliban respect for the constitution, reintegration into society, disarmament, rejection of links with Al Qaida.
While Nasr’s conclusion about diminished negotiating leverage is hard to contest, one might well ask whether there were ever any promising prospects of negotiating with the Taliban during President Obama’s first term, and if any agreement had been reached, what means the U.S. and allies would have had to ensure that the terms were respected.