Afghanistan After Holbrooke

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer Show, Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, discussed how the death of Richard Holbrooke will affect US policy in Afghanistan.

When the Washington Post ran a story on Tuesday on the death of Richard Holbrooke, diplomatic heavyweight and current US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was reported that his final words were, "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

Coming from a US diplomat, that's quite a loaded statement. In context, Holbrooke might have been joking with his doctors just as he was about to go under for surgery, asking them to take care of the war for him while he was sedated so that he could relax when he woke up. Whether or not Holbrooke was just lightening the mood, Steve Clemons said that there's some truth behind the joke.

You could feel in his commentary skepticism about America's Afghanistan project, and I found this really revealing given the final words he's alleged to have said before he was sedated for surgery, telling his doctor and family that we've got to end the Afghanistan war...I talked to a very senior member of his staff yesterday and I said, "What do you think about those words?" and he said, "Steve, those are my instructions from the boss. We are all going to work as hard as we can to take these last words and make them mean something."

"Ending the war," can mean a couple of different things. Was Holbrooke prescribing troop withdrawal, a definitive military victory, or something else entirely?

My view on Richard is, it means do what you can, get the farmers on their crops, help improve their lives as best as you can, shrink the military footprint. My view is that Richard believed the use of the military was needed to put pressure, but the way we were deploying them was ginning up as much trouble as it was solving. He was not an advocate for withdrawal, but he was an advocate of shrinking or redefining the footprint of the military, and that we need to be focusing a lot more heavily on reconciliation strategies and negotiation strategies.

Much has been made of Holbrooke's healthy relationship with the Pakistani government, at once the United States' most important and troublesome ally in the conflict. Despite Pakistan and Holbrooke's excellent terms, it's been reported that Pakistan is still not doing enough about Taliban fighters crossing the Afghani border, raising questions about how fruitful their relationship really was. Clemons said that Holbrooke did as much to improve the situation as anyone could be expected to do.

I think he held things together. My view is that we're not accomplishing much in terms of the big goal. I think the US is caught in a very complex vice between a civil war going on inside Afghanistan and a proxy war going on top between many of its neighbors, so i think in terms of stabilizing and getting some relief and focus on the Pakistan flooding...I think when you look at all the available options they're all pretty bad.

Holbrooke's relationship with Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai was frostier. When asked whether their relationship was really so bad, Clemons countered that diplomatic interactions are not static. Holbrooke was a chameleon, which is exactly what he needed to be.

On the Afghan side, Holbrooke had six relationships with Karzai...Richard's job was to try and get the Afghan citizens to have trust in the evolution of a true, democratic, stakeholding society, and that meant having elections, fair and free elections. Karzai looked at this as a huge threat and they had a huge problem. People keep mentioning Holbrooke's bad relationship with Karzai—but he had a bad relationship with Karzai, he had a great relationship, he had a mediocre relationship. Holbrooke reconstructed his relationship given whatever the task of the day was.

Holbrooke's last words come at a time of eerie significance. On Thursday, President Obama is expected to speak about the latest assessment of the war in Afghanistan. Information contained in the report is steadily leaking out, and from what Steve Clemons has seen of it, the situation is far from ideal. Though Obama will likely say that he remains committed to the July 2011 withdrawal date, Clemons said that we've made our military footprint bigger without much to show for it—something Holbrooke never wanted to happen.

I am disappointed in this. I'm glad they are going to stick with the July 2011 punctuation mark, but at the same time, I think that what people are clamoring for and what's happened over the last year is that the military has failed to deliver on any of the key benchmarks that they had said they would be able to achieve with the surge up in the number troops. At some point, you have to get accountability.