WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama asserted on Thursday that the White House's questionable assessment of progress in Afghanistan "reflect[s] the dedication of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, whose memory we honor and whose work we'll continue."
There's little doubt that the president's chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who died Monday of complications from an aortic dissection, tried his damnedest to make Obama's strategy work.
But the reality is that a year ago, when Obama was choosing between escalation and deescalation in the region, Holbrooke was one of several top advisors who cautioned him that the path he ultimately chose -- sending in 30,000 more American troops -- simply could not succeed.
Behind closed doors, Holbrooke was widely known to be one of the most voluble members of a high-level faction that Obama chose to spurn.
In Obama's War, Bob Woodward writes that Holbrooke considered it a "central truth" that the war "would not end in a military victory," but rather when the warring parties were "brought together diplomatically."
Woodward also describes Holbrooke's conclusion that escalation wouldn't change the two weakest links in the U.S. plan -- namely, corruption and the sorry state of the Afghan police -- and just might make them worse. "Our presence is the corrupting force," Holbrooke is quoted as saying. As for the Afghan police, their enormous attrition rates make Obama's recruitment goals impossible. "It's like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it, " Holbrooke reportedly said.
At the time, Vice President Joe Biden was consistently if privately arguing against sending more troops to Afghanistan, saying the focus should shift to Pakistan.
Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, in his famously-leaked cables to the White House, warned that Afghan President Hamid Karzai "is not an adequate strategic partner" and concluded:
The proposed troop increase will bring vastly increased costs and an indefinite, large-scale U.S. military role in Afghanistan, generating the need for yet-more civilians. An increased U.S. and foreign role in security and governance will increase Afghan dependency, at least in the near-term, and it will deepen the military involvement in a mission that most agree cannot be won solely by military means. Further, it will run counter to our strategic purposes of Afghanizing and civilianizing government functions here.
According to Woodward, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president's Afghanistan advisor, told Obama of the troop increase the military was pushing for, "you don't have to do this."
Woodward wrote that Lute saw enormous, compounding dangers in the war. "Look at them as a set, and then you begin to move, in my mind, from a calculated risk to a gamble," Lute reportedly told Obama. "And if you add those risks up and ask me where I think we'll be in July 2011, sort of your big decision point, I'm telling you I think that we're not going to be a whole lot different than we are today."
John O. Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, also opposed a large increase in troops, Woodward reported.
But, Woodward wrote: "Perhaps the most pessimistic view came from Richard Holbrooke. 'It can't work,' he said."
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that family members said Holbrooke's final words as he was sedated for surgery were to his Pakistani surgeon: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."
The White House quickly tried to squelch that storyline, insisting that his comment was just "part of a jovial back-and-forth with the medical staff."
But the statement would have been consistent with his privately held, if not publicly expressed, views.
Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam-era whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers, said he knew Holbrooke when the future envoy was a State Department advisor in Vietnam. Holbrooke was quick to comprehend that war's futility, Ellsberg said.
"I knew that he had to recognize Afghanistan as the same type of war," Ellsberg said on Wednesday. "The differences are obvious but not significant. The hopelessness of it is fundamental."
Ellsberg said that despite what Holbrooke felt compelled to say in public, "At least he went out having said some true words, first to Bob Woodward a year ago, and then to his relatives as he went to the operating table."
Obama, discussing his administration's annual review of the conflict on Thursday, insisted that "we are making considerable gains toward our military objectives." U.S. troops have "gone on the offensive, targeting the Taliban and its leaders and pushing them out of their strongholds," he said.
But at a conference for historians on southeast Asia just 10 weeks ago, Holbrooke spoke of Vietnam in ways that were eerily reminiscent of Afghanistan today:
Our beloved nation sent into battle soldiers without a clear determination of what they could accomplish and they misjudged the stakes ...
We fought bravely under very difficult conditions. But success was not achievable. Those who advocated more escalation or something called, "staying the course," were advocating something that would have led only to a greater and more costly disaster afterwards.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.
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