Botching War and Diplomacy in Afghanistan

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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.

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.

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.

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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