Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who serves as the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Obama administration, gave what can best be described as a cautiously optimistic assessment of U.S. operations in Afghanistan on Friday.
But in between dodging questions about military progress in the region, he let slip a status update on a key counterinsurgency operation that is bound to concern the skeptics. The program that the U.S. is funding to reintegrate reformed or disabused Talbin fighters, Holbrooke admitted, has so far reintegrated nobody. It was unveiled in January.
"General Petraeus and I have talked about this a lot because he went through something similar in Iraq and there are groups out there which switch allegiances," Holbrooke said, during an appearance at The Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum. "They will fight against the foreigners and ally themselves with the foreigners. That also happened in Iraq.
"The distinction you made between reconcilable and irreconcilable is a well-known distinction. You can start with, 'O.K., they are irreconcilable, it is not possible to talk to them... then you go on to the other groups and you say well some of those are splintered internally...'
"Some local Taliban calls on the cell phone to a person who is a relative or a friend in a local area and says, 'You know we are tired of this war. We are going to come in from the cold.' This is the reintegration movement that President Karzai unveiled in January, in which we have reintegration, the Japanese and others are funding. It is a very important program."
At this point, the moderator, ABC News's Christiane Amanpour interjected. "How many has it brought in?" she asked.
"It is not yet operational," replied Holbrooke, "because the government of Afghanistan has not yet gotten it up and running."
Realizing that he had just provided a vivid illustration of the Afghanistan domestic political lethargy that has left U.S. observers wary, Holbrooke did his best to put a good spin on the matter. Petraeus, he noted, has up to $100 million in emergency funds to get this program operational and understands, from his time in Iraq, not only how critical reintegration is but how to make it work.
"This is a very important program," Holbrooke added. "Nobody can be satisfied with its current operation levels because we don't have in place, the Afghan government doesn't have in place yet, in every district in key areas, the people who are going to implement this program. The project, like everything in Afghanistan, is constrained by the circumstances of this tragic tormented country. And so this program, like any other program you talk about is not going to be where it should be."