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Interview: Richard Holbrooke


He is President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and arguably America's leading Democratic diplomat, with four decades of service, beginning in 1962 in Vietnam, where he worked for the foreign service. Holbrooke made his reputation in 1995 by brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 14, 2009.

“It's like a super tanker -- takes a long time to turn it around. And the American people and Congress want quick results.”

You get the brief [regarding your position as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan] from President Obama, and you go on a tour of Afghanistan. How would you describe the country you found? What kind of shape was it in?

I think we inherited a very difficult situation in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan. It would take a long time to catalog the things that we felt were done wrong, from an overemphasis on eradicating poppy crops when the poppy farmer was not our enemy to a failure to integrate our policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the government was weak; the elections have been postponed, which was a terrible mistake; and corruption was rife.

And we set out to try to take all these issues on at once. It's a very daunting job. It's like a super tanker -- takes a long time to turn it around. And the American people and the Congress want quick results. ...

Is what we're doing there nation building?

It's nation rebuilding. There is a nation in Afghanistan, and until it was wrecked by the Soviet invasion in 1978, it was a poor but proud and functioning country. It was an agriculture export country. It had its own traditions and arrangements.

I visited [Afghanistan] when I was Peace Corps director in Morocco, ... drove all over the country, saw it at work. It was an inspiring place. And then it fell apart. And for 30 years, they went through the most horrible tragedies, which tore the fabric of society apart. And then, after 9/11, we came in, belatedly return to the region after having abandoned it in 1989. And then it was abandoned a second time by the previous administration more or less in 2004, 2005. The administration almost eliminated the foreign aid assistance programs, went in the wrong direction, and the Taliban took advantage of it. ...

Who is our enemy? Who are we fighting? Who is the Taliban?

Our enemy is Al Qaeda and its allies, people who have publicly said they wish to attack the United States again, people who have publicly called on nuclear physicists and engineers to help them gain access to nuclear weapons, which, as the whole world knows, Pakistan has.

In Afghanistan we're fighting the Taliban.

We're fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, yes.

And the Taliban is not Al Qaeda.

[The] Taliban is not Al Qaeda, but they've very closely allied. ... This is the key point, and I'm asked it all the time. Al Qaeda is mainly in Pakistan. We're fighting the Taliban next door in Afghanistan. Why are we fighting the Taliban in one country if the main enemy is in the other country?

Well, the answer lies in looking at the Taliban in western Pakistan. They are the allies of Al Qaeda. They're [integrally] related. Take a guy like [Siraj] Haqqani and the Haqqani group. Haqqani is in western Pakistan. He is an intermediary, in essence, between Al Qaeda, who targets the United States, who seeks nuclear weapons to attack us, and the Taliban. And he fights Americans in Afghanistan and kills them. He captured two New York Times reporters in recent months, both of whom have, thank God, been released. And he simultaneously carries out joint efforts with Al Qaeda.

Is Pakistan onboard with going after Haqqani?


What evidence is there of that?

Just let me leave it at that. ...

We know that they've gone after those who are threatening their state. But yet there doesn't seem to be convincing evidence that they're willing to go after the Haqqani network or Mullah Omar and the Quetta shura.

They are quite clear in their own minds that Haqqani poses a threat to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. …

I want to go back to Afghanistan. You've described corruption in Afghanistan as a cancer. If [President Hamid] Karzai is determined to be the winner of the election, aren't we tainted in that we are supporting a government that has been seen, and will continue to be seen by many people in Afghanistan, as corrupt?

I think that's a very genuine issue. But since we're in the middle of the election process, I would rather get through this election process, do everything we can as a nation to encourage a free and fair counting of the votes, and then proceed from the outcome of the election. But the concerns you have listed are concerns that we fully share and we're completely aware of. And we've had many, many discussions with the Afghan government about them.

And what progress has been made in terms of combating corruption in Afghanistan in this year?

I think we have been able to begin to get some arrests, some prosecutions. We broke up a major corruption ring involving a large American road contract that involved relatives of senior government officials. There are two men in jail in the Virginia federal system right now awaiting trial. I think they're going to plea-bargain because they were caught red-handed. We also captured several of the biggest drug dealers in the world in very sophisticated sting operations.

But we've just begun to scratch the surface. We inherited almost nothing in this area. Projects are under way. We also have a joint task force on money laundering headed by the Treasury Department which we're sponsoring. So we're going to go after all of these issues. But this is tough stuff, as you know. But I feel that at least we are focused on the issues.

The military has been doing a large share of heavy lifting there for some time now beyond simply kinetic operations. They've been doing governance, development work. Where is the civilian surge at?

The buildup is going on pretty fast. Hundreds of people have been arriving. Now, that may not sound like a lot next to 21,000 additional American troops, but each American civilian who comes in carries about 10 additional people with him or her, NGO [non-governmental organization], local Afghan hire, third country. And the buildup is extending down into the regions.

For example, if you go into Helmand province, and you go to the furthest reaches of the American military presence, where the U.S. Marines are fighting in the Helmand River valley -- my deputy was there a few days ago -- there were three American civilians with the Marine company down there. They were fully integrated. One was State Department; one was Agriculture Department; the third was USAID [United States Agency for International Development]. They were working on district government; they were working on agriculture to substitute crops for poppies; they're working on political strengthening. So while we have a long way to go, this buildup is proceeding at a very rapid pace.

I'm very touched by the hundreds and hundreds of young Americans, men and women, who are going out into the most dangerous areas in the world, not in combat gear but in civilian clothes, risking their lives under extraordinary conditions because they believe in the effort of helping the Afghans. ...

How many civilians is it going to require?

You know, I keep getting different estimates on that. Some people want thousands; I personally do not. I think that that would have the Americans replacing the Afghans as the government, and that is a road that will not succeed. So I think the numbers game where you equate a lot of Americans to a future success is a flawed model. ...

I served in Vietnam as a very junior officer, and I saw us put thousands and thousands of Americans into the field, the best and the brightest of that generation doing agronomy and district governance and rule of law in Vietnam. And in the end, the Vietnamese began to rely on the Americans, what I call the dependency trap. Our job is to help the Afghans, not to replace them, so the numbers are less indicative than people think. ...

I sit around in a lot of meetings here in Washington. ... Some of the people I respect most have come to me with plans for 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 international advisers, all the way down to every one of the 295, 300 districts in Afghanistan. I inherently resist that because I don't think we can do it. I don't think we know the language, the culture. ... We'll never decode the tribal relationships and the feuds that go back for decades or generations. I think we have to be very careful about not trying to go in a place where we're not going to accomplish something.

We're going to [put] people at risk. And it's the easiest thing in the world for the Taliban to just capture or kill some of the assistance workers and destroy the whole effort. ...

Describe for me what the Taliban's legitimacy is as you understand it. ... What is the status of the Taliban as a legitimate shadow government in Afghanistan?

It looks to me like there are at least three different kinds of controls in the rural areas of Afghanistan. There are areas clearly under the government control, areas clearly under the control of the Taliban, and areas that are in the control of local power bases who sometimes ally themselves with the government, and sometimes they ally themselves with the Taliban. But they are neither. According to the latest figures that I've seen from the CIA and the Pentagon, that last group is the largest group.

This would be people that are under the control of the warlords ... or local gangsters, drug dealers, whatever.

Exactly. I'll give you an example. In Herat, there's a former mayor who got into a local argument over politics. He went into the hills, and he set up his own group.

And started shelling the city.

He started shelling the city. Is he Taliban? No. Is he pro-government? Not anymore. That is where the struggle is going on, so I think we have to be very careful about where the momentum is.

Seems you've got a tremendously atomized society.

Torn apart by war.

We're there trying to sort of stitch together a kind of Western-style government, or at least a government with strong central control. Is it realistic?

You've used a word that is a leftover from the previous administration: "strong central control." Anyone who thinks you can create strong central control in Afghanistan is delusional. That's not its tradition, that's not its structure, nor is it logistically possible given the road network and the communications network and the war.

What you can do is strengthen government below the national level and try to improve the government at the higher level at the same time. And by the way, think of the United States. Do people out in the middle of the country look to Washington for direct help? No. They look to their local government in the cities. Here the issue is additionally complicated, of course. So do not make the mistake of thinking that our goal is to create a strong central government. It is to help the Afghans create a functioning system that reflects their own culture and traditions.

Do you advocate reconciling with the Taliban?

Our position is very clear on that. There is room in Afghan society for any person fighting with the Taliban who renounces Al Qaeda and accepts a nonviolent approach and lays down their arms and comes in. And many, many people have done that. Many groups have done that. ...

Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton laid that out in her July 15th speech in a very important sentence in the speech, which did not get enough attention. ...

Many of the people in Afghanistan are with the Taliban. Our policy is to protect the people. How do you protect the people from the Taliban when the fact is that in many of these rural areas, the people are the Taliban? ...

... Anyone who thinks that the Taliban are simply a foreign movement misunderstands the nature of it. The Taliban were an indigenous group born in the Kandahar, perhaps assisted by people in other places -- in fact, for sure. But they were an indigenous movement, a reforming, puritanical movement that was trying to clean up a country that had been corrupted. But they also had two things which were very, very bad: their relationship with Al Qaeda and their programs and attitudes toward issues involving many other things, role of women and so on.

But to the degree that they are an indigenous movement, don't they then figure in the future of the country? And don't they have to be dealt with politically?

If the Taliban severs its ties and its support of Al Qaeda and wishes to participate in the Afghan political system peacefully like other groups that came in, which had fought each other and fought other groups, they're welcome. Secretary Clinton made that clear. ...

But the people are the Taliban in many districts.

People aren't the Taliban. The Taliban are part of the social and political fabric of Afghanistan. But they're allied with Al Qaeda; no other groups are. They are openly allied to Al Qaeda. That is where the difference is. I cannot stress this too highly. They are the allies of the people who attacked the United States and who have said they want to do it again. That's crystal clear. If the Taliban breaks with Al Qaeda and peacefully enters the political system as so many other groups have, you've got a different situation on your hands. But they are not doing that. On the contrary.

Do you believe we're going to need more troops on the ground?

The president and his advisers are waiting for recommendations from the command, and it would be obviously premature of me to discuss any such issue. But I will say this: Our goal, whatever else is decided, will be to strengthen the Afghans' capability to defend themselves. That is the army and the police. And we all recognize that the police are the weak link in the security chain, and we have to refocus on them.

And very corrupt.

Corrupt, but at the same time, their casualty rate is four or five times higher than the army's. So you have high illiteracy, high attrition rate, a lot of drug addiction in the police. It's a very bad story in the last six or seven years. And we are focused on the police more than any other issue in the security area.

So I think whatever else happens, you will see a significant effort to upgrade and strengthen the police, upgrade in size, upgrade in quality, upgrade in quality of training.

And the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne has been training in the United States and has just deployed to Afghanistan specifically to train the security forces with an emphasis on the police, and that is a very important event. ...

In the last eight years, do you think the fight there has improved the lives of Afghans?

Compared to what? I mean, I can't answer that question in an easy way. ... If you ask the women of Afghanistan, the answer is going to be a resounding yes. They lived in what they call the "black years." If you talk to the people in the young modernizing sector, they'll say yes. If you talk to the people who are living in a war-torn zone, they'll say no. This is a very tough question, and it depends on the benchmarks. In 2003 to 2004, it looked like a great new world was opening. Then the U.S. government turned away again. The Taliban regrouped in Pakistan and came back. And now we're in a critical period. ...

What is our policy toward Pakistan? Do we have a policy toward Pakistan?

Our policy toward Pakistan is clear-cut and unambiguous. It is critically important to the vital national security interests of the United States. We support the democratically elected government of Pakistan. We have massively increased foreign assistance. We are looking for ways to increase it still further. We are reorienting some of our assistance to help the Pakistanis with their economic problems, particularly in energy. Secretary Clinton will be going there in October [2009] to announce new programs and policies. And we are also urging the Pakistanis to take action against the insurgents in the west, and they have done so.

When we came into office, we faced many problems in Pakistan. We've addressed every one of them. Government stability and political situation has gotten better. The army has counterattacked in Swat and made some real progress. We raised billions of dollars internationally and contributed ourselves for reconstruction. We raised another huge amount of money for the refugees. We are going to continue to help the people of Pakistan in every way we can. We care about this country. President Obama has a personal connection to this country because his mother lived there for years, and he visited, and he has close Pakistani friends. ... So of course we have a very clear strategy for Pakistan. ...

Right after the election, you had a meeting with Karzai that was rather heated. Can you share any of that with us?

Well, this meeting has taken on a bit of a mythic quality. I met with Karzai twice, on Aug. 21 and Aug. 23, four hours of meetings. Most of the time we talked about programs, policy, the very issues you and I have just been talking about.

We talked about the elections, and we asserted that the process was what really mattered. ... And during the course of the lunch we discussed all options, the first-round victory or, alternatively, nobody gets 50 percent and you have to have a runoff and so on. He did not want to see a runoff, and we had a discussion about that.

It was pretty routine. It's what you do. About 10 days later, a broadcast came out in Europe that there had been shouting, screaming and storming out of the room in the middle of the meal. None of that happened. No one raised their voice. No one walked out. We had a discussion of things which got pretty tense for a few minutes, and then we went on to other issues, finished the meal. He walked me out, and I saw him two days later. ...

By the way, if you do your job on behalf of your country, you have meetings where you put your position forward strongly, and the other side does the same thing. And I've had plenty of meetings in my career that really were heated, people yelling at each other. When I was negotiating the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia, people were yelling at each other.

Nobody raised their voice. We discussed the issues. ...

Americans are very concerned that he cannot be trusted, that his government is rife with corruption.

I didn't say we didn't have a disagreement. I said that it was not a stormy, emotional situation in which somebody walked out and somebody yelled. That was reported in the press. It wasn't true. I have no problem representing my nation and carrying my instructions with whatever authority and strength that we can muster. ... I stood with pride for the positions of my country, and President Karzai gave his point of view. We didn't agree.

But it was part of what we do. You talk to your friends and allies frankly, and you get as far as you can. And I've been doing that for a long time, 40 years actually. ... And then one journalist reported screaming, yelling, storming out. It was a nice storyline. It got picked up all over the world. The palace denied it. I'm speaking to you for the first time about what happened. That's what happened. No big deal. That's what we do.

posted october 13, 2009

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