Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.
As a sociologist, I often find it difficult to account for the role of personalities in historical processes. But as a human being, I cannot deny the fact that people make history — though perhaps not under conditions of their own choosing, to paraphrase Marx.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan, takes a look at the Obama Administration’s handling of the Afghan war. Judging by extracts published by the Washington Post, much of the book apparently consists of government and military officials trying to shift the blame for the American failure in Afghanistan. (Slow down, guys. There’s plenty to go around. And Team Bush, none of you are off the hook.) An important theme that emerges from these excerpts is the significant role that personality clashes and petty animosities have played in shaping the Administration’s management of the war.
Richard Holbrooke, who was initially tasked with discovering whether or not negotiations with the Taliban was a viable path out of Afghanistan, was apparently not a well-liked individual within the White House. His personality and temperament had alienated him from many Administration insiders, which had a considerable impact on early efforts to establish peace talks:
Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.
The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.
Even after Obama decided not to fire Holbrooke, [national security adviser James L.] Jones and his top deputy for Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, kept adding items to a dossier of Holbrooke’s supposed misdeeds that Lute was compiling. They even drafted a cover letter that called him ineffective because he had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government. Lute told NSC staffers that he and Jones planned to use the information to persuade the president to override Clinton’s objection.
In the interim, Jones and Lute sought to put Holbrooke into a box. Officials at the National Security Council would schedule key meetings when Holbrooke was out of town. When they didn’t want him to travel to the region, they refused to allow him to use a military airplane. They even sought to limit the number of aides Holbrooke could take on his trips.
Lute and other NSC staffers cooked up their most audacious plan to undercut Holbrooke shortly before Karzai’s visit to Washington in April 2010. They arranged for him to be excluded from Obama’s Oval Office meeting with the Afghan leader, and then they planned to give Obama talking points for the session that would slight Holbrooke. Among the lines they wanted the president to deliver to Karzai: Everyone in this room represents me and has my trust. The implication would be that Holbrooke, who would not be present, was not Obama’s man. The scheme was foiled when Clinton insisted that Holbrooke attend the session.
With Clinton protecting him, Holbrooke spent far less time worrying about how to save his job than Lute spent trying to fire him. “Doug is out of his depth fighting with me,” Holbrooke told one of his aides. “The White House can’t afford to get rid of me.”
Obama could have ordered a stop to the infighting; after all, he favored a negotiated end to the war. But his sympathies lay with his NSC staffers — Holbrooke’s frenetic behavior was the antithesis of Obama’s “no-drama” rule. The president never granted Holbrooke a one-on-one session in the Oval Office, and when he traveled to Afghanistan in March 2010, he took more than a dozen staffers, but not Holbrooke, who was not even informed of the trip in advance. During the Situation Room sessions to discuss Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for more forces in late 2009, Obama kept his views about surging to himself, but he was far less reticent about Holbrooke. At the start of one meeting, Holbrooke gravely compared the “momentous decision” Obama faced to what Lyndon B. Johnson had grappled with during the Vietnam War. “Richard,” Obama said, “do people really talk like that?”
The president’s lack of support devastated Holbrooke’s loyal staff members, who were just as skeptical of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy as Lute and others in the White House were.
“The tragedy of it all is that Richard’s views about all of this stuff — about the surge, about Pakistan and about reconciliation — were probably closer to the president’s than anyone else in the administration,” said former Holbrooke senior adviser Vali Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “If the president had wanted to, he could have found a kindred spirit in Richard.”
Holbrooke died in 2010, leaving unfinished his work of establishing peace talks. But there’s no certainty that his efforts would have ultimately proven successful: there are simply too many barriers — both in Afghanistan and stateside — for one individual to overcome by force of personality, even someone with the considerable experience like Holbrooke. The opposition to talks from the military and intelligence communities, the intransigence and opportunism of Congressional Republicans, and the actions of American grunts in Afghanistan — not to mention the haplessness of Karzai’s government and the Taliban’s triumphalism — are, and remain, formidable obstacles to negotiating an orderly and honorable withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Chandrasekaran details some of these considerable barriers:
Obama told his aides that he was interested in a peace deal, and less than two months after he took office, the president said publicly that he was open to seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, comparing such an effort to a U.S. initiative to work with former Sunni militants in Iraq who were willing to break with al-Qaeda.
His comments alarmed top military and intelligence officials. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command, thought it was too soon even to talk about talking. They wanted to commit more troops first and then talk, but only to Taliban leaders who agreed to surrender. CIA officials argued that the United States could not negotiate with the Taliban until its leadership denounced al-Qaeda.
There was no clear path for Holbrooke to achieve peace talks. The Taliban had no office, mailing address, or formal structure. It was not clear that its leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk — in 2009, the Taliban appeared to be winning — or whether he and his fellow mullahs would accept the United States’ conditions for negotiations: that they renounce violence, break with al-Qaeda and embrace the Afghan constitution.
Even if they did, would the terms be acceptable to the Karzai government? What about Pakistan and other neighboring powers? If Holbrooke was going to have any chance of success, he needed the backing of others in the administration, starting with the president.
Like the White House, the military appears to have been divided over the prospect of negotiations:
As Washington officials quarreled, a quiet shift was occurring at the NATO headquarters in Kabul. While other military leaders opposed reconciliation, McChrystal began softening to the idea. His thinking was shaped by Christopher Kolenda, an astute Army colonel who had been working on a program to provide resettlement and job-training to low-level insurgents who wanted to stop fighting. In December 2009, Kolenda explained to McChrystal how Mullah Omar’s annual messages at the Eid-al-Fitr holiday had become more sophisticated and moderate. The Taliban, he told the general, “is opening the aperture for a different outcome.”
As spring turned to summer, McChrystal became a believer. He realized that the United States would not be able to get an outright military victory, and the Afghan government would not be able to get an outright political victory, so a peace deal was the only solution. McChrystal didn’t want to let up on the Taliban just yet, but he said he was ready to “clearly show them there’s daylight if you go to it.” In early June, he directed Kolenda to prepare a briefing for Karzai on reconciliation.
Later that month McChrystal was fired over comments he and some top aides made disparaging American civilian officials. Obama tapped Petraeus, who led the effort to beat back insurgents in Iraq, to replace McChrystal and energize the war effort. When Petraeus arrived in Kabul, he ordered a halt to the military’s reconciliation activities. He told his subordinates that if the Americans applied enough military pressure, the insurgents would switch sides in droves. To some in the headquarters, it sounded as if he wanted to duplicate what had occurred in Iraq’s Anbar province, when Sunni tribesmen had eventually decided to forsake al-Qaeda and side with the United States. Although Obama had mentioned the Sunni Awakening as a possible model in his first public comments on reconciliation, his views had evolved by the summer of 2010. He told his war cabinet that he was open to pursuing negotiations with the enemy, the likes of which never occurred in Iraq. Petraeus’s approach was more akin to accepting a surrender from a rival under siege.
Criticizing General Patraeus is pretty much political blasphemy these days. But his attempt to replicate in Afghanistan his success in Iraq seems to have been based on mistaken premises. The General did not apparently consider the incredible differences between the Taliban and the fractured Sunni insurgency in Anbar. The Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Hizb-i-Islami are experienced, battle-hardened, and unified guerrilla organizations — operating from a secure base and with ample support across the border in Pakistan. They bear little resemblance to the ragtag and quarrelsome collection of tribal groupings, jihadist gangs, and former Baathists that wreaked havoc in Anbar. These groups had few friends internationally from whom patronage could be secured, which allowed for many of them to be bought off by the American occupation. And, unlike in Afghanistan, a viable state was emerging in post-invasion Iraq. Sunnis in Anbar wanted to get a piece of that state power — and of the considerable oil wealth the state controls. But, Kabul is no Baghdad. Furthermore, al Qaeda is a non-issue in today’s Afghanistan. General Patreaus’ application in Afghanistan of the divide-and-conquer program developed for Iraq was thus doomed to failure. Indeed it is not the Taliban who have switched side, but rather members of the Afghan security forces, if “green on blue” violence is any indication.
A case could also be made that Patraeus misunderstood why the Anbar program was successful in the first place. As detailed in Mark Perry’s Talking to Terrorists, it was Anbari tribal leaders and Sunni businessmen who took the initiative to seek deals with the Marines stationed in Anbar. The Marine officer corps stationed there — as well as civilian leaders in the Department of Defense in Washington and Iraq — wisely took advantage of these overtures, creating the conditions for success in Anbar. Patreaus, whose experience in Iraq was limited to the Shia south of the country, was promoted to Lieutenant General and took charge of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in 2004 during the period in which these deals were being made; he was not, however, intimately involved in them prior to his promotion. His genius was to institute deal-making as part of the general strategy in Iraq. But the extent to which he understood the inner workings of these arrangements on the ground is a legitimate question — and one that may go far in explaining why he believed that the model would be applicable to Afghanistan.
Furthermore, Patraeus may have an institutional interest in replicating Iraqi deal-making, which is an integral component of the his counterinsurgency strategy. Within the military, the counterinsurgency doctrine has provoked considerable skepticism and outright opposition. Perhaps Patraeus wished to demonstrate the strength of this strategy — and thereby guarantee his own legacy — with a success in Afghanistan. Unfortunately for both American soldiers and Afghans, this has not thus has not yet come to pass.
Chandrasekaran details a final change of view within the Administration:
But it wasn’t until the following month [after Holbrooke's death], at a memorial event for Holbrooke in New York, that Clinton said what he really would have wanted to hear: “The security and governance gains produced by the military and civilian surges have created an opportunity to get serious about a responsible reconciliation process.” The United States finally had indicated a clear desire to negotiate with the Taliban.
Clinton also revealed a crucial shift in U.S. policy. The three core American requirements — that the Taliban renounce violence, abandon al-Qaeda and abide by Afghanistan’s constitution — were no longer preconditions for talks but “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.” That meant the Taliban could come as they were. It was the speech that Holbrooke had sought to deliver for a year. Ironically, the only man in the administration to negotiate an end to a war had been an impediment to ending this war.
With Holbrooke gone, Lute stopped insisting on an envoy from outside the State Department. The White House empowered Holbrooke’s successor, diplomat Marc Grossman, to pursue negotiations. And Pentagon and CIA officials ceased their opposition to the prospect of talks with the Taliban.
Although military gains across southern Afghanistan had put the United States in a slightly better negotiating position by that February, nothing had changed fundamentally since Holbrooke’s last push to persuade others in the Obama administration to embrace a peace plan. Nothing except his death.
As any scholar of conflict resolution will tell you, preconditions are rarely a recipe for successful negotiations. This is especially true if the conflict has reached the point of military stalemate, as has occurred in Afghanistan according to the CIA. The Taliban is nowhere close to surrendering and NATO is nowhere close to defeating them. The end of insurgent violence in Afghanistan will be an outcome of negotiations — not a prerequisite for them to occur. The Administration has apparently finally realized this. But, this neither indicates that negotiations will go forward nor that they will succeed. At the very least it suggests that the White House is taking a more realistic approach to ending the war in Afghanistan.
And this is pretty much where we’re at today. Except, there’s the little matter of the ongoing US presidential election. Will we see any movement on the Afghan talks front prior to November? Will Obama be able to use the tough guy image that he’s established as a result of bin Laden’s death and the escalation of the drone war as cover to engage in serious efforts to reach a settlement in Afghanistan? Or will Republican accusations of “giving in to terrorists” prevent the Administration from seriously seeking peace in Afghanistan?
Obama is a politician. Therefore, I have little confidence that he’ll do the right thing. Until November, at least.