Sunday, December 12

Richard Holbrooke's surgery: Once again the hand of fate intervenes in Afghan War, and the tale of a matchmaker and the attention-deficit client

From Reuters report 8 PM ET: Holbrooke, 69 years old, underwent another procedure on Sunday to improve his circulation and remains in critical condition, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement.
The matchmaker (with Cupid's bow and arrow)

The Associated Press reported this morning that Richard Holbrooke, special U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, is in stable but critical condition after more than 20 hours of surgery to repair a torn aorta. The report also mentioned that even if the recovery goes well it is likely it will be a lengthy process. As to how this will affect the Afghan war situation, from the report:
[...] Holbrooke's illness comes just days before the Obama administration is expected to roll out the results of its review of the Afghanistan war next Thursday. His illness is unlikely to result in any changes in that review in which the diplomat has played an integral role.
But Holbrooke's prolonged absence could have an impact on the administration's ability to implement — and also sell to a skeptical Congress — its push for Afghan forces to assume a greater role in the fighting, allowing U.S. troops to come home. It is a transition in which Holbrooke was expected to play an important part, since he has made many visits to the region and developed personal relationships with leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I am thinking back to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland and how in a way no one could have foreseen this changed the course of the war in Afghanistan. If not for an ash cloud from the volcano that hovered over Western Europe's airports it's likely that Gen. Stanley McChrystal would be still be in command of ISAF.

One might argue that Gen. David Petraeus has only continued the counterinsurgency plan that McChrystal was carrying out but Petraeus can do what McChrystal couldn't, which is to change his mind about facts on the ground and make sweeping changes in response. Already Petraeus has added several counterterrorism tactics to the POPCOIN (population-centric counterinsurgency or COIN) plan and he won't hesitate to keep adjusting tactics and even allover strategy in the effort to pull a win out of Afghanistan.

As for Holbrooke, Petraeus has referred to him as his 'wingman.' But despite Holbrooke's vast experience as a negotiator, I think it's been terribly unhelpful to have a wingman who confuses South Asia with Eastern Europe and Afghanistan with Bosnia. Perhaps a lengthy recovery period or retirement for Holbrooke will cause Petraeus to cast around for a wingman who sees Pakistan as Pakistan and Afghanistan as Afghanistan. Now that would be progress. As to where we are now: in the same rut we've been in for years. At the end of July, in the wake of the first round of leaked Wikileaks documents, Ahmed Rashid reported for the (U.K.) Spectator what was already plain as day:
[...] A few months ago Hamid Karzai would have been thrilled to have confirmation that American officers are speaking openly about how divisions of Pakistani intelligence are helping the Taleban. But after spending eight years criticising the ISI, he recently decided to cosy up to them.

Karzai seems to have given up on the ability of the Americans, the Brits and Nato either to defeat the Taleban or even to talk to them. This is why he has turned to Pakistan and Iran: his own freelance attempt to try to broker a ceasefire with the Taleban which would involve a power-sharing deal.[...]
I disagree with this view. From all I've seen I think it was initially Western European governments in NATO, with the USA eventually joining in, which put pressure on Karzai to open up negotiations with the Taliban; when he didn't move in that direction strongly enough some NATO governments took matters into their own hands. Recall the secret British deal to set up Taliban training camps that Karzai's security force uncovered.

But Rashid is correct in that by this year Karzai had put more effort into forging better relations with Pakistan -- as if he had choice when confronted with the threat of the U.S. quitting Afghanistan in 2011.

Rashid was also on the money in his summation of Asfaq Kayani's role in the situation:
These [Wikileaks] leaks are highly embarrassing for Pakistan’s President, Asif Zardari, who has just cravenly given in to the army and awarded a three-year extension to its chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. [Kiyani] ran the ISI between late 2004 and 2007 and had been director of its military operations before that. Both jobs involved helping and sustaining the Taleban in exile in Pakistan, and facilitating their revival in 2004-05.

It was Kiyani who formulated the policy that is criticised in the leaks: giving the Taleban sanctuary and support. The last thing Zardari wants is a forced confrontation with the army over these leaks.

Kiyani is now the most powerful man in Pakistan and will remain army chief until 2013. His aim is for the Americans, the Brits and the Afghans to open talks with Taleban leaders — who are all in Pakistan and over whom the ISI has a great deal of influence and control. In return, Kiyani wants to make sure that the ISI brokers any such talks — and is able to advance its own national security interests. At the top if its wish list is securing a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul, and ending what he regards as too much Indian influence in Afghanistan. This is why the leaked emails [published by Wikileaks] come at a bad time for Kiyani: the last thing he needs right now is any embarrassment about his role, or that of the ISI, in the past.
Kayani needn't have worried about being embarrassed because Richard Holbrooke ably covered for him in public as did Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. As to whether Holbrooke did the same in private discussions: no one held a gun to his head to make him forcefully represent in public a policy toward Pakistan that was suicidal for ISAF forces and a death knell for Afghanistan. So whatever he said in private is beside the point.

The great tragedy is that NATO's view, backed to the hilt by Mullen and rubber-stamped by the Obama administration and Holbrooke, made it impossible for any intelligent assessment to gain ground on how the U.S. should deal with Pakistan.

But that's because the Afghan War is the ADD war; I was reminded of that the other night when I caught an episode of Bravo TV's reality show Millionaire Matchmaker. The show is about a third-generation matchmaker (Patti Stanger) who along with her team of assistants makes matches for millionaires who have everything in life except a spouse. I don't follow the show as much as I'd like to find time for, but every time I've seen it I have been regaled and instructed by the matchmaker's shrewd observations about her picky clients.

The girl (or guy, in the case of a female millionaire) of the millionaires' dreams turns out not to exist for many of the clients simply because no sane person except a gold-digger would date them more than once, let alone marry them. Thus, the delight of the show is Stanger's attempts to help jerks transform themselves into dating material.

One such client was described by the matchmaker's assistant as having ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) as they settled in to study the video he made to introduce himself to Stanger.

When the matchmaker said at first that she didn't see the ADD, the assistant replied, "Wait."

It wasn't a long wait. The man seeking help was unable to focus on his request or on anything outside his business -- his attention split between his Blackberry and laptop.

Happily he was desperate for a good mate, so desperate that he took the matchmaker's advice to put away all the tools of his trade while on a date and focus on the girl. With his attention thus gathered he turned out to be an engaging date.

Would that for a few weeks the matchmaker could take charge of those in charge of the Afghan War. I feel sure she would find a way to get across to even the most scattered brains that it's not possible to win a war if it's always seen as something else; if every tactic is filtered through a geopolitical situation that is not centered in Afghanistan.

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