Botching War and Diplomacy in Afghanistan

By Mohammad Taqi

The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Marc Grossman, has resigned his current position effective next week. While the Pakistani diplomats are singing his paeans as the great "friend of Pakistan," the top U.S. diplomat for the region really had a lackluster and underwhelming stint.

Of course, history will be the ultimate judge of the overall performance by Grossman, his predecessors and those who inherit his position and how it impacted a region in turmoil. But it might be safe to say that if George W. Bush and his administration botched the war in Afghanistan, the Barack Obama administration bungled the diplomacy in Afghanistan.  If Grossman has little to show for his legacy, he might not be too worried as he is in great company with his predecessor, the much-revered late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

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Grossman had big shoes to fill when Holbrooke's untimely death, on Dec. 10, 2010, left a sudden vacuum in the U.S. diplomatic effort in the Af-Pak theater. But in all fairness, instead of the larger-than-life "Bulldozer" diplomat he was touted to be, Holbrooke was a shadow of himself when he took on the job. Some would argue that Holbrooke was a beleaguered man, with many in the Obama team -- with the notable exception of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- bearing hostility toward him. (There was also no love lost between him and the CIA and the Pentagon.)

The fact remains, however, that despite his reputation for hardnosed diplomacy that resulted in the 1994 Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia, Holbrooke was far from putting anything of the sort together. Grossman, as such, did not have much of a legacy to inherit. A policy of pursuing an elusive peace and rebuilding effort while fighting the war -- later codified with the catchphrase "fight, talk, build" by Clinton -- had left all three elements at various stages of incompletion at the time of Holbrooke's death. And it remains so at the time of Grossman's departure from the office, despite the fact that he did not inherit the baggage of Holbrooke's vendettas.

Holbrooke had personified the State Department's obsession with peace and exit strategy in his approach to diplomacy in the region. While the U.S. military planners were trying to "Vietnam-ize" the war in Afghanistan -- i.e., enable the Afghan National Army to shoulder more responsibility and ultimately to stand on their own two feet -- Holbrooke and then Grossman let another kind of Vietnamization happen. In the quest for peace, Pakistan -- the principal backer of the Afghan insurgents -- was receiving kid-glove treatment from the top U.S. diplomats.

As recent interviews given by outgoing U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter suggest, the State Department peaceniks kept getting weak knees each time a terrorist safe haven was taken out in North Waziristan by U.S. drones. The Pakistani security establishment, which never did sever its ties with the Afghan Taliban and the India-oriented Punjab-based jihadists, mobilized crowds through the political patrons/wings of these outfits creating the impression of mass-anti-U.S. hysteria. Terrified by the well-orchestrated anger on the Pakistani street, an exit seemed to be the only strategy on the U.S. diplomats' minds.

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

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