I’ve just emerged from several fascinating days traveling in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I’ll have a lot more to say about the trip in my print column this week–there were no great breakthroughs, but there was the beginning of a real focus on the difficult details in the struggle ahead, especially the human details that are so often overlooked in war zones. This sort of cooperation between State and Defense on matters both military and humanitarian is precisely what has been missing from American policy for the past 8 years.
I will say this: I come away slightly more optimistic about Afghanistan and significantly more pessimistic about Pakistan–which is a problem, since Afghanistan will not be settled unless the cancer on its Pakistan border, the safe havens housing Al Qaeda and the Taliban, is successfully addressed. A good part of my reaction to Afghanistan is emotional rather than intellectual, and has to do with the relentlessly cheerful and dedicated U.S. military and diplomatic corps and the NGO-workers from around the world, who are giving it their all, without cynicism. Their job is made more compelling by the Afghan people–the tribal leaders, women legislators, farmers and religious leaders we met with. Regardless of the “lessons” of history, Afghanistan seems to have more a sense of place than Pakistan, a clear-eyed pride that probably comes from never having been successfully colonized. This is not to say the war is going well. When asked, Admiral Mullen called it a stalemate and added, “and, in a guerrilla insurgency, if you’re not winning, it probably means you’re losing.” But it was possible to see a (wildly optimistic) path toward stability, and the beginnings of some social, agricultural and justice programs that just might work. As for Pakistan, it seems a country in a state of denial about the terrorist challenge it faces, the grisly attacks that come nearly every day now. But more about that later…
Meanwhile, I’m linking to this David Sanger piece analyzing President Obama’s overseas trip, much of which I missed, because it seems right–although, I might add that journalists seem to make more of the need for a Grand Strategy than politicians or history do–but also because I’ve been reading Sanger’s excellent book, The Inheritance, on the plane and want to recommend it: this is the most comprehensive, and depressing, account I’ve read of the foreign policy problems that George W. Bush left Barack Obama. Watching Mullen and Holbrooke at work, made me feel more relieved than ever that the recent dismal past is slipping behind us.