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Afghanistan War: What Richard Holbrooke Really Thought

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Nicholas Kristof's bombshell article yesterday probing into the notes, letters and thinking on Afghanistan by Richard Holbrooke has a number of good journalists, including Politico's Ben Smith, scrambling to reassess where one of the Democrat Party's foreign policy titans really stood on America's longest war.

Thanks to Kati Marton, the late Richard Holbrooke's wife, Kristof was given access to key files and notes of Holbrooke's in her possession -- and with these, Kristof has painted a compelling picture that Holbrooke strongly believed that the Afghanistan War needed to be ended through tough-minded negotiations and eventual reconciliation with the Taliban.

Just as important, Holbrooke felt that the Obama administration has over-militarized its tool kit for dealing with Afghanistan and winced when General David Petraeus referred to him as his "wingman." During the Bosnia War, the tables between the diplomatic team and the Pentagon were reversed -- with General Wesley Clark delivering the military moves that Holbrooke needed and directed.

Kati Marton has done a great service in showing Kristof these papers -- particularly now as decisions on the Afghanistan War are again under review. Kristof has now helped underline and put in exclamatory bold Richard Holbrooke's final words: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

The revelations of Holbrooke's views were not a surprise to me -- in part because of numerous conversations I was privileged to have with both Holbrooke and Kati Marton in the past but also with key members of his SRAP (Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan) team.

Holbrooke and his people were officially supportive of (while in some cases privately opposed to) the President's plan to use a military surge to gut-punch the Taliban and hopefully maneuver them towards negotiations -- but ultimately a negotiated end state leaving Afghanistan better off than when this all started was the key goal in their mind. Many others in the Obama administration -- particularly on the Pentagon side of the equation -- have had a tough time keeping that goal in sight.

But Richard Holbrooke telegraphed his views on Afghanistan publicly at a historian conference featuring Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton, himself, and others hosted by the State Department on the release of the updated Foreign Relations of the United States volumes on Southeast Asia -- with a focus on the Vietnam War. These volumes are considered the reconciled history of the US -- with secrets that had recently become declassified woven into public accounts of America's foreign policy.

At this meeting, I asked Holbrooke to compare his work in the early years of the Vietnam build-up in which he was also tasked with non-military roles in building up the economic and civil society institutions of Vietnam with what he was doing today in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke's entire commentary is here, but here follows our specific exchange on Afghanistan and Vietnam:

QUESTION [Steve Clemons]: Ambassador Holbrooke, thank you so much for your comments. I think the purpose of these foreign relations volumes is not only to set the record straight, but to give us a digest of issues so that - to help us in foreign policy decisions that we make later down the road. And you were on the field in - on the ground in Vietnam, as you said, looking at this through the portal of civilian - the civilian dimensions of the war, like your task today. And it would be interesting to know, both positively and negatively, what your experiences in doing that in Vietnam, how those have affected the way you've organized your teams work today in Afghanistan.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I was wondering how long we could avoid that question. (Laughter.) And it has to be a friend who asks it, right? Steve, that's a - of course, I've thought about it a lot. And so let me start by making a very simple statement about then and now.

There are many structural similarities between the two situations, but there is a fundamental strategic difference. And there's a fundamental difference about how we got involved. In Afghanistan, we entered the war because we were attacked in the most serious attack on American soil in history, and the nation unanimously on a bipartisan basis, without any significant descent, myself certainly included, felt that we had to go into Afghanistan because the people who were in charge of the country had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida and could not remain there. And whatever happened after that, the root cause of our entry into Afghanistan was instantaneous, Pearl Harbor- like and totally justified.

We slid into Vietnam accidentally. Little known fact, Eisenhower already had advisory troops there before Kennedy became President. Eisenhower had told the president-elect not only about Laos, in response to this gentleman's question, but also about the importance of Vietnam. It was Eisenhower who laid out the domino theory which became the dominant metaphor of the war and which turned out to be false. The dominoes didn't fall unless you count Cambodia and Laos, which were part of the strategic space.

And so we slid in a thousand soldiers under Eisenhower, at the time of President Kennedy's death, maybe 15,000, 16,000, at the time Lyndon Johnson left office, over 500,000, and then the drawdowns that Henry described. So we slid in.

Had people sat down and said, you know, we're going to go in there, we're going to end up with 500,000 troops, I cannot imagine any administration, any political system would have agreed to that intervention. But as Henry pointed out, that's the hand that they were dealt on January 20th, 1969. And so that is a - that is the fundamental difference.

But structurally there are obvious similarities. And leafing through these books here, they leap out at you. Many of the programs that are being followed, many of the basic doctrines are the same ones that we were trying to apply in Vietnam. And I believe in history. I think history is continuous. It doesn't begin or end on Pearl Harbor Day or the day Lyndon Johnson withdraws from the presidency or on 9/11. You have to learn from the past but not be imprisoned by it. You need to take counsel of history but never be imprisoned by it.

So this is not Vietnam, but there's a lot to learn. And it's not an accident that David Petraeus, my counterpart for the first year-and-a-half of this Administration, until he went back to Kabul, had written his Ph.D. thesis at Princeton about this, about the war, and he and I have talked many times about it.

Richard Holbrooke believed that Vietnam was a massive mistake by the United States and didn't want to repeat the errors today that America made then. While he was right that the factors that animated US intervention in Vietnam differed greatly from what drove America's decision to invade Afghanistan, he suggests that there are many "structural similarities."

During Holbrooke's opening comments at this historian's conference, Holbrooke made very clear his rejection of America's Vietnam escapade:

I must conclude that our goals in Vietnam did not justify the immense costs of the war. Nor do I believe that success was denied to us because of domestic events and lack of patience on the part of the American public.

And then in commenting about Dean Rusk's private reservations about the Vietnam engagement, I saw and felt Holbrooke using this as a metaphor for his own reservations about Afghanistan while nonetheless serving President Obama and carrying out his policies:

And - but while Dean Rusk harbored deep internal doubts about the war, he felt an absolute obligation to support the troops and the President's policy. He believed deeply in the theory of American invincibility, something I would emphasize to a younger generation, was instilled in every one of us in high school in those days, in those far away days, when we were taught and endlessly reminded that America had never lost a war. All the strength of Dean Rusk's convictions - convictions we all still would like to be able to hold, of course - were inadequate to the fact that on the ground, as we slid deeper and deeper into the morass, and later as it spread to Cambodia.

And so we failed the first test. Our beloved nation sent into battle soldiers without a clear determination of what they could accomplish and they misjudged the stakes.

The trends in America's engagement in Afghanistan bothered Richard Holbrooke greatly -- and it's important, as the Kristof article ends, for the administration to take serious account of Holbrooke's concerns as the next steps on Afghanistan are weighed.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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