By Katie Kieffer
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke must have known that his last words would echo around the globe. Unsure if he would survive emergency aorta surgery, he told his doctors: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” Holbrooke never came out of that surgery: He left this world on Dec. 13, 2010. Holbrooke was a man of influence in peace-brokering and foreign affairs. This week, the White House will honor him at his funeral in Washington.
At the time of his death, he was the Obama Administration’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was a key diplomatic leader in both the Clinton and Carter Administrations and also advised Sen. John Kerry and former Sen. Al Gore. Despite his liberal leanings, I respect Holbrooke for urgently seeking to end the War in Afghanistan. Sadly, Holbrooke did not live to successfully end this war, as he did the War in Bosnia in 1995.
We can honor Holbrooke by thinking realistically about Afghanistan and by pursuing peace. But, first, we need to understand Afghanistan.
Afghan agriculture rife with corruption
In 2008, Holbrooke wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post arguing that the U.S. was wasting billions of dollars on a Bush-era counter-narcotics program that actually led farmers into the hands of the Taliban and strengthened al-Qaeda. “I hope they [U.S. government officials] will reexamine the disastrous drug policies that are spending American tax dollars to strengthen America’s enemies,” he wrote.
Holbrooke believed that America’s only chance of success in Afghanistan would be to focus on rebuilding its agriculture industry. His plan for Afghanistan was to stabilize its economy and create legitimate jobs. He aimed to create jobs through the power of the pomegranate.
The pomegranate is the biggest (legitimate) cash crop in Afghanistan. Currently, too many Afghan farmers rely on poppies (opium) and marijuana crops. Even the local police and tribal councils have become corrupted by the drug trade. Drugrunners literally force destitute poppy farmers to give up their daughters as “loan brides” if they are unable to repay their farming loans.
While Holbrooke had good intentions, his idea to zero in on Afghan agriculture, particularly the pomegranate trade, is unrealistic and costly. In order for the pomegranate trade to flourish, Afghan farmers would need the U.S. to provide expensive cold storage facilities to hold the fruit prior to shipment, electric power supply and transportation facilities.
Additionally, the success of Afghan pomegranate crops relies on Pakistan’s long-term fulfillment of a July, 18, 2010 trade agreement that allows Afghan farmers to bring route their goods through Pakistan to consumers in India.
Each year the, War in Afghanistan costs the U.S. government $100 billion or $1 million per soldier. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is drowning under a $14 trillion debt load and a $1.3 trillion budget deficit. We cannot rebound out of recession if we continue to plod along in this war. As one Administration official told TIME Magazine, “We’re spending nearly twice as much on Afghanistan as we’re spending on Homeland Security.”
Meanwhile, more Americans are losing their lives and limbs as junior officers make deadly decisions as they face unforeseeable traps such as undetectable mines. Despite President Obama’s troop surge to Afghanistan, violence has increased. The Guardian reports a 20 percent increase in civilian deaths from 2008 to 2009.
Afghanistan is no longer a war of necessity
We have accomplished our post-9/11 self-defense mission. So, we can choose to pull out of Afghanistan. The President’s vague and politically motivated December, 2010 war review provides no detailed time-line for troop reductions through and beyond 2014.
The dirty politics of U.S.-Afghan diplomacy
One reason we are still at war in Afghanistan is that the Obama Administration repeatedly dismissed Holbrooke’s opinion, despite his successful track record of brokering peace and nearly a half-century worth of diplomatic experience. Holbrooke disagreed with the Administration’s approach to Afghanistan. He did not trust Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and therefore thought diplomacy should be rooted in realism.
For example, Holbrooke used his weight to throw out a plan to create “…a new UN special envoy empowered to pursue peace talks with the Taliban,” reports The Guardian. While President Obama used Holbrooke to deliver some of his most unsavory messages to President Karzai, it appears that his Administration tried to blame Holbrooke for the break down of Obama’s vision in Afghanistan – which Holbrooke was merely executing.
Holbrooke wanted a shot at using his proven, raw negotiating skills to call a meeting with the Taliban, and find a peaceful resolution. But, for all his talk of peace, President Obama undermined Holbrooke’s authority to act as a full diplomat while never hesitating to blame him for Afghan failures. Had it not been for his reputation in Washington and his relationship with the Clintons, the President would probably have disposed of his services long ago.
As TIME Magazine points out: “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.”
We will not stop the War in Afghanistan by caving to President Karzai, but by acting with realism and responsibility. We do not have disposable monetary or human resources. Now is the time to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. We are putting our own economy and national security at high risk, especially if we linger beyond 2014.