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Holbrooke: No ‘Dysfunctional Relationship’ Exists for U.S. Leaders in Afghan War

June 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The administration’s war strategy has come under new scrutiny in the week since the president fired his top general.

One of the top officials in charge of that strategy joins us now, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.


RICHARD HOLBROOKE, special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: Good to be here.

GWEN IFILL: Welcome back. You’re just back.


GWEN IFILL: We have heard in the last week especially, new questions raised about this, the whole strategy in Afghanistan.

And I wanted to ask you about something in particular, one of your administration’s chief critics has said about this. And that’s Lindsey Graham, the senator from North Carolina. He said that this is a dysfunctional relationship that’s happening now among all the top leaders.

What do you say to him?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: You’re talking about…

GWEN IFILL: Talking about in the wake of McChrystal’s firing, questions…

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: You’re talking about in the Afghan government?

GWEN IFILL: Absolutely, in the Afghan — in our government, managing the Afghan war.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, I have great respect for Lindsey Graham. I have worked closely with him. And, as you know, he serves every year in Afghanistan, but I really don’t know where he’s coming from on this.

I have worked in every — every Democratic administration since the Kennedy administration, and I know dysfunctionality when I see it. We have really good civil — civilian-military relations in this government. My counterpart, until yesterday, was David Petraeus, when he got confirmed for another job.

We have the closest relationship I have ever had with a senior military official, and I’m proud to have worked so closely with him, and I think we’re now sending our top military command to the most difficult area.

I — as far as U.S. relations in Washington go, I have worked in every iteration of White House-State relationships and defense relationships over the last 40 years. This is one which is absent of any ideological differences, as occurred in the last administration and several I served in. We work closely together.

There are always personal differences and ambitions, but this is just not true. It’s not a dysfunctional relationship.

GWEN IFILL: The personal differences which people have focused on involved you and Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal. He is now gone. General Petraeus, as you pointed out, you have had a good working relationship. Can we assume that things get better now?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: First of all, I also had a very good relationship with General McChrystal, whom I saw on the day before he left Kabul and who went out of his way to apologize to me personally. In fact, he woke me in the middle of the night to apologize.

GWEN IFILL: Were you surprised his staff said those things?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I was appalled that they said those things, but I don’t take it personally. These things happen.

The decisions that were made by President Obama were important decisions. They reaffirmed one of the most sacred principles in American life, civilian control of the military, and they held up the most important principle, which he mentioned repeatedly in his campaign, accountability.

And he then sent in the outstanding senior military officer I have ever worked with. And I have known them all back to General Westmoreland in Vietnam. So, I’m very pleased with where we are.


RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Now — let me just finish, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Certainly.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The press then created a narrative out of an isolated incident. And the narrative was the one you just mentioned. And, honestly, it just isn’t true.

There — we work very closely together. Twice already in the last four days, General Petraeus, Ambassador Eikenberry, myself, and Doug Lute, the National Security Council senior director, deputy national security adviser for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the four of us had secure phone conversations of a sort we hadn’t had previously to work on implementation.

And it’s interesting. The very first issue that was raised in the very first call, which was on Saturday, raised by David Petraeus, was electricity for Kandahar as part of the Kandahar operation. Now, that’s an issue we have been working on for a long time.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s part of this overall counterinsurgency strategy?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: It’s a central, central issue for the campaign in Kandahar, is to get electricity to the people as part of our overall counterinsurgency.

But the point I want to make is that David Petraeus raised it. Ambassador Eikenberry immediately said he supported what General Petraeus was proposing. And since I had already been working on, I then — as soon as the call was over, I called the head of AID, Rajiv Shah, and the deputy secretary of state, Jack Lew.

We’re working on it to accelerate an ongoing process. Tomorrow morning, we will have an international secure television conference on Kandahar electricity. This is not dysfunctionality. I know what dysfunctionality is when I see it. I have been there. I have been there.

GWEN IFILL: I will bet you do. I will bet you do.

GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you about another set of relationships, and that’s with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. How reliable a partner is he today?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: First of all, let’s start with the facts. He is the legitimately elected president of the country. It was a messy election, as the president said, but it’s long in the past.

Secretary Clinton went to Kabul. I went with her on November 19 for his inauguration. He made certain commitments. He went to London and repeated them. Yesterday, he signed one of the key announcements, the reintegration decree, which opens up the door to Taliban coming in from the cold.

An international trust fund is going to be set up. I have been working directly with the Japanese, who are leading this effort. And the Japanese, by the way, don’t get enough credit for what they’re doing in Afghanistan.

And throughout all of this, we’re working closely with President Karzai. I met with President Karzai eight times this year, in London, in Munich, in Washington, in Kabul. And in these meetings, we have covered all these issues.

Now, let’s not try to personify the country in one person. He also has a very good team of ministers around him. We spent a lot of time with his minister of finance, his minister for reintegration, his agriculture minister, who has a direct relationship with our secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack.

So, this is a very tough situation in Afghanistan. No one denies that. But the important thing to underscore is that it’s not a government of one person. And the government doesn’t control the whole country. And the — and the bench strength is limited. We are lacking enough good, qualified Afghans. And the Afghan government is working on that.

GWEN IFILL: A year from now, July 2011, there has been some — no small debate in Washington about whether that is a deadline for the beginning to withdraw and it’s sending the wrong signal to our allies on the ground there.

From the ground, how are they responding to this idea of even a soft target in July 2011?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Let’s be very clear in what the president said and what our policy is.

American and other international combat troops, some will start withdrawing in July of next year, the size and pace and scope to be determined by the president after the review, which will take place at the end of this year.

GWEN IFILL: So, it is conditions-based already, is what you’re saying?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Everyone has said that, and I don’t need to repeat what the president and the two secretaries of defense and state and others have said, and David Petraeus…

GWEN IFILL: But perhaps you do, because there still seems to be some other misunderstanding.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, I have got be honest with you. If there’s a misunderstanding, it may be because the issue has not been correctly represented in the media. For example, I was recently…

GWEN IFILL: Or by Senator John McCain, or by Senator Lindsey Graham, or any number of people on Capitol Hill.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Look, you’re talking about people I greatly respect, but they can speak for themselves.

Our position is extremely clear. As the troops draw down, the Afghan security forces will replace them. So — and, furthermore, as the president and Secretary Clinton have said repeatedly, economic and development assistance will and must continue.

We are not going to repeat the abandonment of Afghanistan that took place in 1989, and which left the country, after the Soviet withdrawal, in a state of collapse, which led to the warlords, which led to the Taliban, which led to 9/11. We cannot afford that.

The American public understands the direct connection between our presence in Afghanistan and our efforts in Pakistan on one hand and our national security on the other.

GWEN IFILL: I do want to ask you about Pakistan. In Pakistan, where you have also spent some time, you have just come from a meeting with President Zardari. And you mentioned this question about relationships with the Taliban. These things are all integrated, and you’re the integrating guy.

GWEN IFILL: How do you figure that you can negotiate some sort of agreement? Is that what you’re going to do with the Taliban? And are you going to do that with cooperation from Pakistan, or is that something that’s separate and apart?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I’m not going to negotiate an agreement with the Taliban.

President Karzai has said that he wishes to have reconciliation programs. He’s talked about it. President Obama has announced that we support Afghan-led reconciliation. In my talks in Islamabad and Kabul last week, I put heavy stress on this issue.

In recent weeks and months, almost unnoticed by the American media, there’s been an increasing intensity of direct contacts between the governments of Pakistan and the governments of Afghanistan. They haven’t come to any final conclusion. Some of the reporting has been quite wild on this.

But the bottom line is that there’s a more of a dialogue, encouraged by us. The U.S. is working closely with President Karzai. And the Pakistanis understand what we’re doing. I’m not here to say that something very dramatic and secret is going on. But it’s out there in plain view. It just hasn’t been reported.

General Kayani went to Kabul, barely mentioned in the Western press. President Karzai went to — not only to Islamabad, but to New Delhi, Beijing, and Washington and Tokyo. These — these contacts are significantly narrowing the gap, the historic gap, which is over 60 years old, between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Please remember — and, your viewers, please remember — that, on the day Pakistan was — declared independence, Afghanistan opposed its entry into the U.N. in 1947. They have a disputed border. They share a Pashtun ethnic group. There are massive historical issues here.

And President Obama has sought to help the two work together, for the simplest of reasons. If they work together, there’s mutual benefit for them and for the rest of the world, because that is the area of the world, that border area, where the greatest threat to our national security, homeland security, and that of our European allies, and India all lie.

And the last few months have seen a real dialogue, encouraged by, but not guided by the U.S. That’s what we do. That’s what I think should have been done years and years ago, and that the policy I’m part of.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, thank you so much for joining us.