Midnight Moments: Exposing the Truth and Taking Full Responsibility for Afghanistan

Last January, Richard Holbrooke called my cell phone at midnight,
although we were both in DC. He had been Special Envoy for Afghanistan
and Pakistan for a week and he wanted to quiz me on Afghanistan. After
each reply he paused and then -- just as I suspected he was texting
someone else -- growled "okay so what do we do?" "How can you prove
that?" "What do we do about Pakistan? Iran? Russia? Karzai?" An hour
later, he said "You've lost your argument against the 17,000 troop
increase. But Petraeus is asking for another 40,000 in September and
if you think that's wrong you should say so." He encouraged me to
model myself on a general who had spoken against Vietnam in the
Pentagon. He concluded, "I am sitting you next to Secretary Clinton at
dinner. Say exactly what you think. If you don't, I never -- ever --
want to hear you criticize the policy again." And then he hung up, I
guessed to call someone else.

I was left, standing half-to-attention in my boxer shorts at the end
of the bed unsure what had just happened but prepared to do almost
anything he asked. The energy of this man, thirty years older than me,
at one in the morning shook me. But it was not his alertness, nor the
charm of his sustained attention, nor his flattering comparisons,
which captivated me. Nor was it even his revelations (I had thought
that a decision on 17,000 troops was a month away and had no idea a
further 40,000 was remotely likely). I was suspicious of his
encouragement. But I was conquered by his contradictions. He was
listening intently to someone with whom he disagreed and giving a
platform to someone who argued against his own position. He wanted to
transform the Pakistan, the Afghan and the US government -- while I
argued that it was impossible. He felt Afghanistan was vitally
important and that we had a moral obligation to continue: I, that we
had no moral obligation to do what we couldn't do. But he poured his
energy into me and gave me, I felt, a charter to fight against the
Afghan policy.

Leaders are often detached from policy. They are hesitant to invest as
much, emotionally or intellectually, particularly in this costly
bewildering war, as it demands. Perhaps because they feel stuck with
it, they have little desire to examine its foundations. They prefer
writing objectives to rubbing their faces in the intractable stuff of
Afghanistan.

Europeans and Afghans imply it is someone else's responsibility.
American politicians can bend to military advice; generals can radiate
optimism and blame politics. But Holbrooke seemed to want to both
expose the truth and take full responsibility for the policy. He
wasn't interested in tinsel triumphs. He had a real historical
imagination, displayed in his surprisingly modest and scrupulous
account of his role in the Balkans. I had heard him assess the
weaknesses of early twentieth century Arabists with the insight, the
fondness and sparks of envy that one might apply to a childhood
friend. And he was aware of history's questions -- the kind of
questions he posed of Vietnam -- How important was it really? Did it
make sense? Could it be done? And believing that it did and it could,
he wanted to give space to those that disagreed.

I was unsettled by him, as much as charmed. And yet, when I try to
understand what it might mean for a man to have a "destiny", it's
Holbrooke, I think of: taking responsibility for a position and the
truth of that position. And I think of his final line to a young
foreigner, with whom he disagreed, "Say exactly what you think. If you
don't, I never -- ever -- want to hear you criticize the policy again.