In the Arena

Holbrooke’s Last Words, Take Three

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My first reaction to Richard Holbrooke’s “You’ve got to stop this war” comment to his Pakistani surgeon was that Dick obviously was joking, trying to ease the mood–which would have been very much like him. I was, thus, surprised when people seemed to be taking the comment seriously today–I mean, why would he implore his surgeon to end the war? And, furthermore, Holbrooke was so immersed in the complexities of the situation, the notion that you could simply “stop” this frustrating conflict would seem ridiculous to him.

We talked about this over dinner a few weeks ago, just before I headed off for another tour of the war zone (an obsession of mine that he had launched and nurtured, much to my family’s dismay). Holbrooke had grave doubts about the efficacy of U.S. military action in Afghanistan–that was nothing new. He believed the conflict would only be resolved diplomatically, that equilibrium could only be reached in Afghanistan if the Pakistanis and Indians established better relations, and stopped seeing Afghanistan as a strategic prize…and he was frustrated by the inability of all the regional players to understand that peace was in their best long-term interests (especially the Pakistanis, whose obsession with military matters–and paranoia about India–was crippling their ability to build the bouyant economy necessary for a stable state). But he also believed the U.S. had made a moral commitment to Afghanistan and saw a long-term involvement as inevitable. At the very least, the U.S. had to continue training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces–which wouldn’t be cheap, he told me: an estimated $7-8 billion per year.

As always, Holbrooke saw the problem in the broadest possible strategic terms: there was a vital U.S. national security interest in calming down the region, especially ┬áPakistan, with its 80+ nuclear weapons and history of military coups, sometimes of an Islamist nature. He understood this could only be done slowly, patiently, with ample doses of humanitarian and carefully targeted military aid. He could talk at length, and often did, about the maddening complications governing every aspect of his last mission. There was no “end” ┬áto the conflict, in his mind. There was a gradual transition, from perpetual war to something resembling stability, if not exactly peace. When he died, he was not optimistic that such a path could be found–but he was entirely committed to, indeed obsessed with, trying to find it.

I’ll have more to say about Richard in the next issue of the magazine, and here on Swampland. There’s a lot of ground to cover. I’m feeling an enormous, numbing personal loss, and the country has suffered a terrible loss as well.