Botching War and Diplomacy in Afghanistan

By Mohammad Taqi
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Holbrooke's approach to America's Pakistan problem was more reflective of his early experiences in Vietnam than the Balkans. While he supported arming the Bosnians and bombarding the aggressor Serbs, he originally was an opponent of the use of hard power against North Vietnam. Despite knowing full well that the oxygen to the Taliban fire in Afghanistan comes directly from Pakistan, Holbrooke apparently had opted to follow his Vietnam instinct.

And that perhaps was the legacy bequeathed to Grossman, which the latter appears set to pass on to whomever will be his permanent replacement. Michael Hirsh had noted in the National Journal in May that "Washington and other capitals continue to watch, helplessly, as a middle-sized developing country defies a superpower and the NATO alliance with virtual impunity." U.S. diplomatic pussyfooting has enabled, and in some ways encouraged, such defiance.

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The military option to confront Pakistan was deemed to be a cure worse than the cancer itself. Tactical options like drones, though effective in a circumscribed zone, were certainly no strategy for coping with a country virtually serving, all the way from Khyber to Karachi, as a bridgehead for the al-Qaeda and Taliban cadres, as well as sanctuary for the who's who of transnational terrorism. The Haqqani terrorist network head honchos in Peshawar and the outskirts of Islamabad, Taliban leadership in Quetta and Karachi and of course OBL in Abbottabad says it all.

Yet it was the Pakistanis who were "outraged" and the U.S. diplomats who were falling over each other to apologize. How hard was it to accurately analyze the situation, and how long did one need to do so? We have heard a lot about Colin Powell's famous phone call to Pervez Musharraf, and Richard Armitage giving a piece of his mind to General Mahmud Ahmed. It is pertinent to ask how hard U.S. diplomats subsequently tried to challenge Pakistan, if at all.

When the U.S. had enough boots on the ground in Afghanistan and favorable war momentum, the diplomatic approach should have then been used to engage the international community to honor pledges made to the Afghans on the eve of November 2001. Equally important was the need to cobble together a broad-based diplomatic front to question, if not to confront, Pakistan over its continued interference in Afghanistan.

Why the U.S. diplomatic corps, especially Holbrooke, Grossman and Munter, failed to do so when their colleagues like former U.S. ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker kept warning about Pakistani interference, is intriguing. Incompetence, Stockholm syndrome of sorts and, of course, the bickering within and between the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon could be to blame. 

But it is ultimately political expedience that forces many otherwise well-meaning people to buy into clichés, myths and stereotypes. From Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, to the British Empire and the Soviet Union, no one has been able to conquer Afghanistan. The fact, however, is that a shallow understanding of the region -- coupled with feeble compromises and broken promises -- perpetuate the self-serving myth that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. To a common Afghan, it is only a graveyard of international commitments.

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Dr. Mohammad Taqi can be reached at mazdaki@me.com. He tweets @mazdaki.

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