Will the departure of Holbrooke make an impact on Afghanistan?

Richard Holbrooke’s sudden and unexpected demise in Washington, on December 13, following heart surgery, poses a host of questions to a number of countries in myriad ways.

Holbrooke had lately been famous in the arena of international diplomacy because of the status accorded to him by President Barack Obama as his special envoy for Af-Pak, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that capacity he travelled the world, the region of South Asia in particular, to make his presence felt in the corridors of power in many a country directly or indirectly concerned with the ongoing ‘long war’ in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke had been picked by Obama for this challenging assignment because of his fame, or notoriety, as a tough and unrelenting go-getter. In US fame comes fast and thick to those in particular who may make a mark on the people’s minds as a macho figure. Holbrooke had plenty of brain power and, perhaps, more of brawn and muscle power that endeared him so much to his gung-ho countrymen.

He shot to stardom and rose to an almost cult status in 1995 when he bull-dozed all resistance to the peace deal that President Clinton wanted to cut to put an end to the bloody conflict in Bosnia, where tens of thousands of hapless Muslims were mowed down by marauding bands of Serb terrorists enjoying state protection.

Holbrooke was credited especially for breaking down the mulish resistance of the Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who himself had enjoyed the reputation of being tough-as-nails and hard -to-prevail upon. But Holbrooke managed to twist his arm and got his way, getting all the parties involved in that rampant blood-letting to agree to the Dayton Accord, which henceforth became permanently associated with his name. The mandarins in the American political and diplomatic community started calling him ‘the bull-dozer.’ Even Henry Kissinger, himself a past-master of arm-twisting and brow-beating, deferred to him and cautioned all those who crossed his path to know that saying ‘no’ to what Holbrooke demanded always extracted a stiff price in the end.

With his macho reputation and élan of a ‘Mr. Fixit’ preceding him, Holbrooke was expected to make a major impact on the conduct of diplomacy that accompanied the prosecution of America’s longest war in history. However, his induction into the theatre of Afghanistan and Pakistan was marred at its very inception and caught on a wrong footing when the Indians called Obama’s bluff to also include the long-festering Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan in Holbrooke’s portfolio. Under a swift but intense backlash from the Indians-who have consistently resisted and hated any attempt to inject an outside element into what they regard as a strictly bilateral dispute with Pakistan-Obama had to beat an early and ignominious retreat. That initial faux pas cast a long and ominous shadow on ‘Mr. Fixit’s’ mission, which, perhaps, could never recover from that early shock.

With Pakistan occupying a pivotal role in the context of war and peace in Afghanistan it was understandable that Holbrooke trained his diplomatic gun and gaze more intently on that country. He became a frequent traveler to Islamabad, which evoked a mixed-bag of reaction in Pakistan and was interpreted differently by the ruling elite of the country and its citizens and common man.

To Pakistan’s hide-bound and endemically corrupt oligarchs, Holbrooke was the exalted and puffed-up messenger from their master in the Oval Office to whom they were expected to kowtow, which they did, in spades, with total deference and fealty. However, to the people of Pakistan, he was a harbinger of doom, who portrayed nothing but continued exploitation of Pakistan’s gratuitous hospitality.

The people of Pakistan, unlike their hare-brained leaders, have never had any doubts about the long-term designs and objectives of US in Afghanistan. Likewise, they entertained no fancy notions of US in regard to their own country and have known it for a fact that Pakistan’s value in the context of the ongoing war in Afghanistan is nothing more than a door mat. What has irked them most is that there is no recognition in Washington of the horrendous toll this raging conflict is exacting off Pakistan. On the contrary, Washington’s relentless badgering of Pakistan, accompanied by an annoying demand that Pakistan should ‘do more’ has arrayed more Pakistanis against US than ever before.

Holbrooke was seen by the man-on-the-Pakistani-street differently than the cowering denizens of Islamabad’s power corridors. He was seen as not a diplomatic envoy, constrained by diplomatic norm and practice, but more a viceroy of Washington and a modern-day stentorian tribune of an imperialist power intent on putting its stamp not only on Afghanistan but also on the whole region around Pakistan. Rightly or wrongly, the common man’s perception in Pakistan was formed by Mr. Holbrook’s annoyingly too-frequent presence in Islamabad. They blamed him for poking, unwarrantedly, his nose in Pakistan’s internal affairs and that infuriated them no end, as much against him as against their slavish ‘leaders.’

So the unexpected departure of Holbrooke from the scene takes away, in the lay Pakistani’s perception, a symbol or figure-head of a strategy that has continually worked against the interest of Pakistan and will not lead to any remarkable change as a whole now that he’s gone. President Obama moving swiftly to fill the void with Holbrook’s deputy, Frank Ruggiero, as acting special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, only adds substance to this lingering suspicion in Pakistan.

To the Pakistanis, however, it is no less an irony that in his last hours in a Washington hospital, Holbrooke was attended by a young and brilliant Pakistani heart surgeon who tried his best to save the life of the man who was seen by most in Pakistan as a tormentor. The barrage of drone attacks against civilians in the tribal belt of Pakistan is the epitome of the relentless torture heaped on people not connected with terrorism. There have been more than 110 such attacks in 2010, almost double the number of last year’s.

Holbrooke’s equation with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was no less tortuous and controversial. Holbrooke’s impatience with Karzai’s lackadaisical performance as the American point-man in Kabul was well-known. There was little love lost between the two men and US news media and diplomatic pundits didn’t shy away from reporting the shouting bouts the two men, at the opposite end of the Afghan spectrum, often indulged into their private meetings.

So in the overall context of American strategy that has consistently blended more of stick than carrot, Holbrooke’s disappearance from the scene is not going to make a huge difference. Holbrooke did twist a lot of arms in Islamabad and Kabul, no doubt, but he failed to make a real impact on the Taliban who were the real target of his well-known and amply advertised dexterity in diplomacy- steeped- in- power. He hardly ever got even close to laying his hands on the Taliban or Al-Qaeda to break any bones, which was the stuff of the legend surrounding him. The Taliban, in their summation of Holbrooke’s sudden demise, have attributed it to “constant psychological stress” brought on him by US failures and reverses in Afghanistan.

The Taliban propaganda aside, there are many in the western world not flinching from describing Holbrooke’s mission as a total failure. They are not shying away from saying that Holbrooke died a frustrated man, and that toward the fag-end of his mission cut short by his death, he seemed convinced that the primacy of war, as compared to peace, in Obama’s overall strategy for Afghanistan was misplaced.

Diplomatic pundits are straining hard to read more meaning and substance than Holbrooke perhaps ever intended in the last words he uttered about Afghanistan on his death-bed.

According to the Washington Post, he lay there in the prestigious George Washington University Hospital writing in severe pain and anticipating surgery, he was asked by his doctor, a female Muslim American by the name of Dr. Jehan El-Bayoumi, to relax and leave the worrying to her. Hearing this, Holbrooke responded if that would also include, “end the war.”

This little, cryptic, quip of Holbrooke-his very last words-has prompted the pundits, especially ones with a perception of how horribly the US war effort in Afghanistan has been going awry to ponder whether Holbrooke meant to pass on a message to the White House that war had run into a blind alley and the way out was only to sue for peace?

It’s highly doubtful, on the basis of available evidence to the contrary, that there would be any takers of Holbrooke’s last-breath advice in the Obama White House.

In his latest annual review of strategy for Afghanistan that Obama unveiled three days after Holbrooke’s demise, he repeated the same mantra to ‘disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda” without acknowledging the fact that Al Qaeda is no longer a centrally organized outfit operating out of Afghanistan with any discipline. The Pentagon released its own “assessment” and not a ‘review’ to dovetail, simultaneously, Obama’s over-arching review of his Afghan strategy. This ‘assessment’ meekly mentions the well-armed and well-equipped NATO forces of making only “limited” gains that could be “reversible.” It claims that the Taliban “momentum has been arrested” but that’s the line NATO and Washington have been uttering, ad nauseam, for years with nothing more substantive to show in real terms.

The bottom line is that Obama, who owned the ‘good war’, in his own words, in Afghanistan as very much his own is getting nowhere after being in charge of it for two years. His strategy to wield a big stick, by inducting 30,000 additional troops into the Afghan theatre on his watch, is apparently running into a quagmire just as Bush’s was. In fact Obama is increasingly looking like Bush, who at least made no pretensions of being a liberal.

With the option of force making only limited and questionable gains-and with his chief negotiator taken away by the hand of death-Obama seems well and truly caught at a very awkward juncture. The Americans and NATO have nothing new to offer except cosmetics to somehow mollify increasingly restive people back home. In fact some European pundits believe that with the Americans having dug themselves in a hole in both war and diplomatic parleys, it was time to look for a UN role in peace negotiations. A UN mediator could, perhaps, make up for the appalling lack of trust between Obama and the man-on-the-spot-in-Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai.

The American think-tank, the Centre for American Progress (CAP) believed to have close ties with the White House, says more or less the same thing in its latest stock-taking of Afghanistan. Its assessment says, “Despite short-term tactical success, the current approach is not leading to a sustainable end-state for Afghanistan that would enable an enduring transition to Afghan leadership on any time frame.” In conclusion, the CAP report recommends that all steps going forward must “focus on necessary political reforms and a framework for internal and regional negotiations.”

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, a former British diplomat who was closely associated with Holbrooke on his Dayton mission, has come up with a more candid assessment of the situation in the wake of Holbrooke’s demise. In an interview with The Guardian Cowper-Coles said: “They have a clear choice between continuing to pursue a largely military strategy that can at best suppress some of the symptoms of the disease, or adopting the 80 per cent politics approach....”

But the biggest question at this stage is whether Obama is any longer capable of taking a bold leap forward in Afghanistan. The man is proving to be an unmitigated disaster on most fronts where he thought he could make a huge difference. But he is not. Instead, he’s failing on most and tying himself into knots that he may find impossible to disentangle.

Nowhere is Obama’s failure more dismal and palpable than in the Middle East where his initiative for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is in tatters. The powerful Jewish lobbies, in concert with the Zionists of Israel and US have called his bluff. He has run into the wall of the settlers, backed by a war-monger Netanyahu, and finds himself helpless to make any dents in it. Those who thought he could be different from Bush and his neo cons are regretting the choice they made.

The imbroglio in Afghanistan is a more complex thing than ME and Obama is, for all intents and purposes running out of options to cut this Gordian knot.. More to the consternation of his erstwhile supporters the man is showing a rapidly dwindling reservoir of will to make a difference in the way US foreign policy has been conducted in all these years. So Holbrooke may rest in peace; it’s going to be more of the same in Afghanistan without him.