The Passing of Farmer Holbrooke

The death of Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has left a giant vacuum in Afghanistan policy circles -- particularly in regards to the agricultural development policy that Holbrooke championed as an essential counterinsurgency tool. He often termed agriculture "our number-one 'non-security' priority in Afghanistan" -- going on to say non-security was in quotes because agriculture and security are inextricably related in Afghanistan, where 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. Holbrooke was such a fervent proponent of interagency, civilian-military agricultural development in Afghanistan that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Manhattan-born diplomat "Farmer Holbrooke." Now officials in Washington and Kabul are unsure about the direction of U.S. agricultural policy in Afghanistan.

"We're pretty emotionally drained over here, says Quintin Gray, a USDA official who is serving as Senior Agricultural Advisor to the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking of Holbrooke's unexpected death. "His absence leaves an enormous void, because of his ability to pull people together and accomplish things. Irreplaceable is a word that comes up -- no one is irreplaceable -- but he is going to be a difficult person to replace."

Holbrooke had the gravitas and moxie to make things happen. Out in volatile Khost Province along the Pakistani border, I sat in one agricultural meeting at Forward Operating Base Salerno with an array of development officials and diplomats in khaki tactical clothes and body armor, along with a substantial number of well brass-ed military officers. They'd gathered to hear the word from Holbrooke's ag envoys. As a few errant insurgent rockets landed on the base, Holbrooke's ag advisors repeated his message to the officials and officers: Make it happen. Use agriculture to help defeat the insurgency. And make it happen fast.

Holbrooke's interest in hearts-and-minds work as a counterinsurgency tool goes back to Vietnam, where he served for six years as a USAID officer. Holbrooke was an architect of the Office of Civil Operations (OCO), which was responsible for integrating the U.S. civil support for pacification. The OCO was the precursor to CORDS, short for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. Though mainly focused on development and aid work, CORDS included the Phoenix Program, the U.S.-funded anti-Viet Cong campaign that became one of the war's most criticized initiatives.

USAID made Vietnam a showcase of development, sending thousands of American civilian experts to work there. In 1967 alone, USAID spent $550 million in aid to Vietnam out its global budget of $2 billion. Though USAID has long persisted they at least got CORDS right, the outcome of the Vietnam War certainly wasn't the result that Holbrooke and United States envisioned in those heady New Frontier days. In an oral history of the Vietnam War, Holbrooke said, "It never occurred to me in the year 1963 that the United States could lose a war. How could it?"

In his viceregal role as Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke trumpeted the need for a "whole of government" approach to problems, handpicking people from the State Department, USAID, USDA, Treasury, Homeland Security and the military to serve on his staff. "He got outstanding, great people," Gray says. Holbrooke's Monday Night Shuras (Dari for meetings) in Washington became the place to be for a broad spectrum of Afghanistan policy-makers, including his multi-agency staff and top people from the Pentagon and civilian departments. In the shuras, Holbrooke turned time and again to agriculture as the key to turning the tide against the Taliban. "Ambassador Holbrooke, for a man from New York, he was always talking about agriculture," Quintin Gray chuckled with his soft North Carolina accent.

And Holbrooke plowed some hard ag-policy ground. He railed against the USAID-funded Alternative Livelihood counternarcotics projects, telling a Washington Post reporter, "In my experience of 40-plus years -- I started out working for AID in Vietnam -- this was the single most wasteful, most ineffective program that I had ever seen. It wasn't just a waste of money... This was actually a benefit to the enemy. We were recruiting Taliban with our tax dollars." With his assistance, the U.S. managed to get an Afghan-Pakistani Transit Trade Agreement to allow Afghan agricultural exports to make it to Indian markets in expedited time. A massive juice factory for exports is on-line in Kabul. Just recently, Afghan exporters shipped their first shipment of pomegranates in thirty years to the UAE market. Afghan apples are being airlifted to India; raisins to America. It's a small start, but a historic moment for Afghan farmers, whose centuries-old export markets were destroyed by war. Sharing the positive views of many other diplomats and international development experts, Holbrooke helped Afghanistan's Minister of Agriculture Asif Rahimi with his plans to modernize his hidebound department. USDA recently awarded a $38 million grant to the Ministry of Agriculture for training and improved administration.

"I say our current course is the proper course," Quintin Gray says. "We have to get the agricultural part of this right." Of course, with the Obama administration now deep in the assessment of our current Afghanistan strategy, many of our policies will be reappraised. Even as sure-minded a man as Richard Holbrooke was concerned. According to news reports, his last words to his Pakistani surgeon were, "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."