What It Will Take to Finish the Job in Afghanistan

Needed in Afghanistan: security, development and a stable Pakistan

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Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME

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No one in the Administration who follows Afghanistan closely believes we can simply "get out," as critics propose. The U.S. has significant national-security interests in the region. The first, oft stated, is to prevent al-Qaeda from returning to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and using it as a safe haven. But that isn't nearly as important as the problem next door in Pakistan, with a wobbly civilian government that has more than 80 nuclear weapons and a history of military coups, some of which have been led by Islamists. Obama signaled his awareness of this larger issue in an interview with me just before the 2008 election: he said that Afghanistan was part of a regional problem and that he wanted to send a special envoy to sort out the problems between India and Pakistan, especially the dispute over Kashmir. The Indians, ever jealous regarding any interference in what they consider internal affairs, were infuriated by what Obama said to me, and he was careful to drop India from the portfolio of Holbrooke, who laughingly called Kashmir "the issue that dare not speak its name."

But spoken or not, the issue remains. If tensions between India and Pakistan remain high, the likelihood of a military coup in Pakistan — perhaps one led by al-Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban sympathizers — increases. And Afghanistan has been a central theater for those tensions. Pakistan's infamous Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) helped create the Taliban to block an Indian beachhead in Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1989. It was a clever ploy, putting Pakistan on the side of Afghanistan's Pashtun majority. In response, the Indians and others supported the Northern Alliance, a coalition of Afghanistan's various ethnic minorities. The ensuing civil war elevated the Taliban to power. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought the U.S. into the fray and kicked the Taliban out. Ever since, the Pakistanis have continued to quietly back the Taliban while nominally standing as a U.S. ally; they remain unconvinced that the Americans will have the patience to stay the course in Afghanistan.

Just before he died, Holbrooke told me over dinner his hopes for an Afghan endgame. (Caveat lector: Holbrooke was a close friend and my son's former boss and mentor in the State Department.) There would be no solution, he believed, if the Pakistanis didn't think the U.S. was in Afghanistan for the long haul. He despaired over working with Karzai's government, but he believed that a credible Afghan military could be built — with good reason, since the current ANA is, in effect, a larger version of the old Northern Alliance: more than 90% non-Pashtun. The U.S. has repeatedly assured the Pakistanis that NATO funding of the ANA will keep the Indians out of the picture. If the Pakistanis perceive a reduced Indian threat, they might reduce their support for the Taliban. The U.S. would foot the bill for the Afghan military: $7 billion to $8 billion per year. "But that would be chump change compared to the $100 billion we're spending now," an Administration official told me.

Holbrooke believed tensions could not be reduced without a diplomatic solution. He wanted to cap his long career with a final haggle — this one with the Taliban themselves, leading to a peace conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Bonn accord, which established the Karzai government in December 2001. He was at odds with Petraeus about that. The general was looking for something closer to a surrender than a negotiation from the Taliban, and his remains the default position in the Obama Administration. Holbrooke was also skeptical about the efficacy of maintaining a large U.S. force in Afghanistan, although he was curious about what sort of progress I'd find when I visited the Taliban heartland in December. (He collapsed before I could talk to him, on the morning I returned.) But Holbrooke and Petraeus did agree on one aspect of the war: cold storage. Both were convinced that there would never be real stability in Afghanistan until a strong agricultural economy returned. Having lost his faith in the Karzai administration, Holbrooke hoped a credible government could emerge from the bottom up, from local shuras like the one in Zhari that Eikenberry met with, from a rural populace that had moved on from poppies — a funding source for both the Taliban and Karzai's friends — to pomegranates and wheat.

The fighting season in Afghanistan, I've learned, begins after the opium harvest in April and ends with the marijuana harvest in late November. When I visited Senjaray in December, marijuana was drying on flat mud rooftops all over town. The fighting season in 2010 was the most successful for the U.S. since the very first push, in 2001, that dislodged the Taliban from power but allowed Osama bin Laden to escape. That initial success was not followed by any effective diplomatic, governmental or economic-development action by George W. Bush's Administration, and the Taliban returned.

The Obama Administration is in a stronger position now, but still a fragile one. The U.S. military has proved its ability to clear the Taliban from its best-defended areas; there is a fighting chance that the ANA will be able to hold those positions. But the Karzai government remains a mess, and there is diplomatic and development work still to be done. Petraeus is, once again, doing his job. But it is only half of the job to be done. If the real U.S. national-security interest in Afghanistan is the stability of Pakistan, that is a job for a master diplomat like Holbrooke — and the true portfolio is the one that Obama mentioned to me in 2008: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Obama handled Holbrooke badly, although Richard was — as his good friends know — a handful. According to Leslie H. Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and Holbrooke's closest friend, the President undercut Holbrooke from the very beginning. After Holbrooke read Karzai the riot act, telling him that he would have to clean up his government and that funds would no longer flow with no strings attached as they did during the Bush Administration, Karzai called the White House and said he would no longer deal with Holbrooke. Instead of telling Karzai that he would deal with the U.S. President's special representative or with no one at all, the Obama Administration caved. Holbrooke wasn't part of the President's traveling party on two trips to Afghanistan; Karzai was massaged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry instead; and the Afghan President treated both Eikenberry and Petraeus with disdain.

The question of who will replace Holbrooke is now front and center. There isn't much appetite for the job among senior diplomats. I'm told that Clinton asked the eminently qualified Thomas Pickering, former ambassador to the U.N., to take the job but was turned down.

Obama may get lucky. It is quite possible that he will have the appearance of an Afghan solution in place, with tens of thousands of troops returning home, as he runs for re-election in 2012. But if he really wants to stabilize South Asia and make it less likely that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falls into the hands of terrorists, he is going to have to hire a diplomat as skilled as Petraeus is at warfare and give him (or her) the same amount of authority that Petraeus has. An unstable Pakistan is potentially the world's greatest security threat. It can't be fudged. It has to be faced.

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