‘Little America’: Infighting on Obama team squandered chance for peace in Afghanistan
‘Little America’: Infighting on Obama team squandered chance for peace in Afghanistan - The Washington Post
In late March 2010, President Obama’s national security adviser, James L. Jones, summoned Richard C. Holbrooke to the White House for a late-afternoon conversation. The two men rarely had one-on-one meetings, even though Holbrooke, the State Department’s point man for Afghanistan, was a key member of Obama’s war cabinet.
As Holbrooke entered Jones’s West Wing office, he sensed that the discussion was not going to be about policy, but about him. Holbrooke believed his principal mission was to accomplish what he thought Obama wanted: a peace deal with the Taliban. The challenge energized Holbrooke, who had more experience with ending wars than anyone in the administration. In 1968, he served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam. And in 1995, he forged a deal in the former Yugoslavia to end three years of bloody sectarian fighting.
The discussion quickly wound to Jones’s main point: He told Holbrooke that he should start considering his “exit strategy” from the administration.
As he left the meeting, Holbrooke pulled out his trump card — a call to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was traveling in Saudi Arabia. The following week, Clinton went to see Obama armed with a list of Holbrooke’s accomplishments. “Mr. President,” she said, “you can fire Richard Holbrooke — over the objection of your secretary of state.” But Jim Jones, Clinton said, could not.
Obama backed down, but Jones didn’t, nor did others at the White House. Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.
The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.
Even after Obama decided not to fire Holbrooke, Jones and his top deputy for Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, kept adding items to a dossier of Holbrooke’s supposed misdeeds that Lute was compiling. They even drafted a cover letter that called him ineffective because he had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government. Lute told NSC staffers that he and Jones planned to use the information to persuade the president to override Clinton’s objection.
In the interim, Jones and Lute sought to put Holbrooke into a box. Officials at the National Security Council would schedule key meetings when Holbrooke was out of town. When they didn’t want him to travel to the region, they refused to allow him to use a military airplane. They even sought to limit the number of aides Holbrooke could take on his trips.
Lute and other NSC staffers cooked up their most audacious plan to undercut Holbrooke shortly before Karzai’s visit to Washington in April 2010. They arranged for him to be excluded from Obama’s Oval Office meeting with the Afghan leader, and then they planned to give Obama talking points for the session that would slight Holbrooke. Among the lines they wanted the president to deliver to Karzai: Everyone in this room represents me and has my trust. The implication would be that Holbrooke, who would not be present, was not Obama’s man. The scheme was foiled when Clinton insisted that Holbrooke attend the session.
With Clinton protecting him, Holbrooke spent far less time worrying about how to save his job than Lute spent trying to fire him. “Doug is out of his depth fighting with me,” Holbrooke told one of his aides. “The White House can’t afford to get rid of me.”
Obama could have ordered a stop to the infighting; after all, he favored a negotiated end to the war. But his sympathies lay with his NSC staffers — Holbrooke’s frenetic behavior was the antithesis of Obama’s “no-drama” rule. The president never granted Holbrooke a one-on-one session in the Oval Office, and when he traveled to Afghanistan in March 2010, he took more than a dozen staffers, but not Holbrooke, who was not even informed of the trip in advance. During the Situation Room sessions to discuss Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for more forces in late 2009, Obama kept his views about surging to himself, but he was far less reticent about Holbrooke. At the start of one meeting, Holbrooke gravely compared the “momentous decision” Obama faced to what Lyndon B. Johnson had grappled with during the Vietnam War. “Richard,” Obama said, “do people really talk like that?”
The president’s lack of support devastated Holbrooke’s loyal staff members, who were just as skeptical of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy as Lute and others in the White House were. “The tragedy of it all is that Richard’s views about all of this stuff — about the surge, about Pakistan and about reconciliation — were probably closer to the president’s than anyone else in the administration,” said former Holbrooke senior adviser Vali Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “If the president had wanted to, he could have found a kindred spirit in Richard.”
No clear path to peace
To Holbrooke, a towering man with an irrepressible personality, brokering a deal with the Taliban was the only viable strategy to end the war.
He was convinced that the military’s goal of defeating the Taliban would be too costly and time-consuming, and the chances of success were almost nil, given the safe havens in Pakistan, the corruption of Karzai’s government and the sorry state of the Afghan army.
Obama told his aides that he was interested in a peace deal, and less than two months after he took office, the president said publicly that he was open to seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, comparing such an effort to a U.S. initiative to work with former Sunni militants in Iraq who were willing to break with al-Qaeda.
His comments alarmed top military and intelligence officials. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command, thought it was too soon even to talk about talking. They wanted to commit more troops first and then talk, but only to Taliban leaders who agreed to surrender. CIA officials argued that the United States could not negotiate with the Taliban until its leadership denounced al-Qaeda.
There was no clear path for Holbrooke to achieve peace talks. The Taliban had no office, mailing address, or formal structure. It was not clear that its leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk — in 2009, the Taliban appeared to be winning — or whether he and his fellow mullahs would accept the United States’ conditions for negotiations: that they renounce violence, break with al-Qaeda and embrace the Afghan constitution.
Even if they did, would the terms be acceptable to the Karzai government? What about Pakistan and other neighboring powers? If Holbrooke was going to have any chance of success, he needed the backing of others in the administration, starting with the president.
But the White House never issued a clear policy on reconciliation during the administration’s first two years. Instead of finding common purpose with Holbrooke, White House officials were consumed with fighting him. Jones and Lute hated the thought of Holbrooke basking in the spotlight as he did after peace in the Balkans. They wanted him out of the way, and then they would chart a path to peace.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Published: June 24
Excerpted from “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.”
I love political intrigue and this certainly seems like a book that is full of political backstabbing. I'm uncertain as to whether to buy it or not, But, I certainly will read it when it comes to our local library.
Courtesy of Swissman
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