Richard Holbrooke and Afghanistan

John Guardiano Freelance Writer
Font Size:

As I reported earlier today at FrumForum, Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has died.

Holbrooke was a patriot, a dedicated public servant, and one of the Democratic Party’s most sober foreign policy analysts. But let’s be honest: that’s not saying much.

The Democratic Party, after all, long ago ceased to be serious about matters of defense and foreign policy. Indeed, Democrats’ addiction to “peace” began when the Vietnam War went south in the late 1960s; and they really haven’t been sober since.

Oh sure, there have been sporadic bouts of sobriety, such as when the Clinton administration finally and belatedly used military force to bring about peace in the Balkans. And Holbrooke himself deserves praise and recognition for engineering the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the three-and-a-half-year-long war in Bosnia.

But for the most part, the Democratic Party has been an advocate for American military retreat and withdrawal from the world.

That’s why I was surprised to read Max Boot’s hyperbolic praise of Holbrooke over at Commentary magazine’s Contentions blog.

Boot acknowledges Holbrooke’s success in Bosnia, but gives him a pass for his manifest failure in Afghanistan. This even though Boot recognizes Holbrooke’s “mistake in alienating [Afghan President] Hamid Karzai.”

Still, “most of the blame does not accrue to Holbrooke,” Boot writes.

The problem was that in Bosnia, the skillful use of force had set the conditions for diplomatic success — something that has not yet occurred in Afghanistan.

This is true insofar as it goes; however, it doesn’t go very far.

In truth, military and diplomatic success in a complex counterinsurgency campaign, such as we are waging in Afghanistan, are highly interwoven and inextricably linked. One doesn’t necessarily precede the other. Instead, they work in tandem. They reinforce one another. They depend upon each other.

So by needlessly antagonizing Karzai, Holbrooke seriously undermined the American military effort in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports:

As Mr. Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, family members said, his final words were to his Pakistani surgeon: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

But as I observed earlier today at FrumForum:

That sounds great to peace-loving and chardonnay-sipping liberals sitting in Manhattan and Georgetown. But to Karzai and other hard-headed Afghans fighting a difficult and brutal war in some of the world’s most rugged terrain, it meant just one thing: Holbrooke doesn’t want to win this war; he wants to end it. Holbrooke isn’t with us; Holbrooke is against us.

Needless to say, this has made success in Afghanistan much more difficult.

Now we are told that Holbrooke was “joking” about “stopping the war.” His comments, it seems, “were part of a jovial back-and-forth with the medical staff,” reports the Huffington Post.

“At one point, the medical team said, ‘You’ve got to relax,’” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Tuesday, relaying what he said he had heard from people who were in the room with Holbrooke at George Washington University Hospital.

“And Richard said, ‘I can’t relax, I’m worrying about Afghanistan and Pakistan.’

“After some additional exchanges … finally [Holbrooke’s doctor] said, ‘Tell you what: we’ll try to fix this challenge while you’re in surgery.’ And [Holbrooke] said, ‘Yeah, see if you can take care of that,’ including ending the war.”

Well, it’s reassuring to know that Holbrooke was only “joking” about ending the war in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, Holbrooke’s comment was taken seriously because it rang true. It corresponded well with his own actions as special envoy; and it resonated with the Obama administration’s overall reluctance to commit to winning the war.

Of course, no one ever questioned Holbrooke’s patriotism and dedication to duty. The man, after all, was a committed public servant. And he always answered the call to duty — “from Vietnam to the Balkans and now Afghanistan and Pakistan,” as Sen. Joseph Lieberman eloquently put it.

Still, we do the deceased no favors when we whitewash their careers and overlook their mistakes and failures.

Holbrooke was a faithful practitioner of the diplomatic arts for more than 40 years and a loyal servant of America and of the Democratic Party. And for that he deserves our praise and our thanks.

But Holbrooke was also human, and a member of a political party that is distinctly uncomfortable with the exercise of U.S. military power. May he rest in peace.

John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. He writes and blogs for a variety of publications, including FrumForum, the American Spectator and The Daily Caller. Follow him at his personal blog ResoluteCon.com, and on Twitter @JohnRGuardiano.