The conference on Afghanistan with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, sponsored by the Center for American Progress on August 12 turned into a disappointing press conference promoting the virtual nation-building plan being integrated into the US military operations in that country.
It was an opportunity for CAP to begin distancing itself from the military occupation which has claimed 781 American lives thus far, and at this rate will cost one trillion dollars by the end of President Obama's first term.
CAP continues to call Afghanistan a "war of necessity" against al-Qaeda safe havens, an argument which could just as easily apply to Hamburg, Germany, where the September 11 highjackers plotted, or many other locations in failed-states around the globe.
Podesta sat at Holbrooke's side during a 90 minute discussion that was mainly promotional. Podesta did ask the only pointed question of the day, which was whether the Afghan mission has expanded well beyond President Obama's early focus on neutralizing Osama Bin Ladin and any terrorist cell focused on attacking the United States.
Holbrooke joked about the previous evening's Stephen Colbert show which featured an interview with Clintonite operative James Carville, now the campaign consultant for Ashra Ghani, a Western-educated World Bank economist running at four percent in recent polls against Hamid Kharzai. Aren't you campaigning against America's favorite client?, Colbert asked. The following day the New York Times reported that Ghani was likely to be appointed prime minister if Karzai wins, putting the US deeper in the drivers seat after Afghanistan's elections next week. Holbrooke joked that Colbert and Carville "got it right."
Holbrooke's team, most of whom were present, includes senior State Department diplomats, former advisers to the John Kerry campaign, counterinsurgency liaisons from the Pentagon, CIA and FBI counter-terrorism operatives, AID and agricultural experts, a British diplomat, a former Soros official in Kabul, women's rights advocates, an Air Force commander, and well-known authors Barnett Rubin and Vali Nasr. This was described as "the civilian side" by Holbrooke, though he noted that his CIA adviser "can't be surfaced" for public events.
This was a nation-building team, a parallel government, assembled for the very long haul.
There was virtually no acknowledgement that "the civilian side" depends entirely on the success of "the military side" in killing, capturing and defeating the insurgencies raging in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nearly ninety percent of US funding goes for military purposes, and General Stanley MacChrystal soon will be asking the White House for more troops.
Barnett Rubin described the American policy goals in terms that put security -- military success -- first: to enable Afghanistan to gain control of its territory and make the entire region more secure.
It is little wonder that the Obama White House lobbied in recent months to kill Rep. Jim McGovern's simple resolution calling for a report on an exit strategy from the Pentagon by December.
There is no exit strategy, even though President Obama once offered his opinion that one was needed, and a majority of House Democrats voted for the McGovern bill. [John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, recently sent an email to 100,000 Democrats endorsing McGovern's measure, a sure sign of discontent at the grass-roots of the party].
Holbrooke, a highly-educated and articulate diplomat who long ago was an author of the Pentagon Papers, wriggled in trying to answer Podesta's question about mission creep. "It's a good question why we are in Afghanistan if al Qaeda is largely not there," he began. "The connections between al Qaeda and the Taliban are 'very elusive'", he added. But Afghanistan could become "recruiting territory" for al Qaeda in Pakistan if the US left Afghanistan, he claimed, so if you abandon Afghanistan you will suffer somewhere else.
Podesta asked another question: can America settle for a "weak Afghanistan" combined with military intervention in Pakistan? The commitment is not "open-ended" but will take a "long time," came the answer.
"I don't use the word 'victory', but 'success' instead", Holbrooke noted. And what is the "success" that will allow an exit? You cannot define success, he mused, "but we'll know it when we see it." Success will not involve a battleship surrender or a Geneva conference, he predicted.
The biggest problem will be "strengthening the police after the military does the clearing", he noted, which sounds like subcontracting the war to local forces once we have paid for, armed and trained them.
The sense one got from this presentation was that Holbrooke is assembling an infrastructure which will be in place if and when the troops have finished their "clearing", which may not be anytime soon.
What Holbrooke didn't say is that quagmire is more likely than success in the predictable future. And then he will be presiding over Dayton-style talks as he did in the Balkans a decade ago. "We feel the impatience of the public and the Congress", he admitted in response to a question.
Like success, a quagmire will be known when the public sees it. Forty-five Americans were killed in Afghanistan in July, a rate that is continuing in August. For every one of those dead American soldiers, not to mention the uncounted dead Afghan and Pakistan civilians, the quagmire already has begun.