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A Look At The Long Arc Of Failed U.S. Diplomacy In Afghanistan

Sep 10, 2019
Originally published on September 10, 2019 6:54 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When President Trump tweeted over the weekend that he had invited the Taliban to Camp David and then had called off the secret meeting, that peace talks were dead...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They're dead. As far as I'm concerned, they're dead.

KELLY: ...It called to mind the long arc of failed U.S. diplomacy in Afghanistan and the many diplomats who have tried to bring the U.S. war effort there to an end, among them Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's envoy to the region. He died in 2010 of a massive heart attack. At the hospital, a doctor ordered Holbrooke to relax, and he replied, I can't relax. I am in charge of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That's one of many stories that George Packer recounts in his book about Holbrooke, "Our Man." We wondered if Packer heard echoes between today and a decade ago, and so we've invited him to our New York bureau. Hi there.

GEORGE PACKER: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hi. So it occurs to me that President Obama, like President Trump, was elected on a campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan, and obviously, Obama didn't get it done because here we are. Was part of the problem then, as now, divisions within the administration?

PACKER: That always seems to be the problem. I mean, you could look at every crisis or war going back to Vietnam. The fighting inside the administration seems even more intense than on the battlefield. In 2009, Richard Holbrooke became Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama didn't care for Holbrooke, but...

KELLY: Why did he name him if he didn't like him?

PACKER: Because Hillary Clinton wanted him.

KELLY: OK.

PACKER: Holbrooke was, you know, sort of this storied envoy who had negotiated the end of the Bosnian war, and so Holbrooke spent two years trying to get Obama to let him negotiate with the Taliban. And it was only at the very end of his life - in fact, on the last day of his life, he was in a meeting with Hillary Clinton, discussing the new channel he had opened to the Taliban, the first one of American negotiators since the start of the war. And his aorta tore, and that was the end.

KELLY: I hadn't realized it was the last day.

PACKER: Yeah, in the office that he'd always wanted to occupy - the secretary of state's office.

KELLY: Compare the men charged with leading the U.S. effort. Richard Holbrooke a decade ago - it's Zalmay Khalilzad now, who is President Trump's envoy - both seasoned diplomats, but beyond that could not be more different men.

PACKER: That's right. Khalilzad, he had a knack for sitting down with Iraqi leaders and letting them know that he understood their point of view. He has a sense of how negotiations have to work in that part of the world, whereas Holbrooke sort of blundered and made an enemy of Hamid Karzai, who was the Afghan president at the time. Khalilzad is more patient, more subtle and spent nine rounds, I believe, of talks with the Taliban leading up to what he thought was a deal.

But it turned out his president, Trump, was also the opposite of his predecessor, Obama. Obama was cautious and spent weeks and weeks studying the issue in the National Security Council. Trump was detached and gave Khalilzad great freedom - which may have been partly why he was able to come close to success - and then, with a single tweet, sends the whole thing up in flames.

KELLY: Yeah. Based on your reporting, what is your sense of how national security decisions in this administration are being made? National Security Adviser John Bolton has just gotten sacked following a reported disagreement between Bolton and the president over that planned meeting with the Taliban.

PACKER: Yeah. Well, at my distance, the way it looks is the president enjoys seeing his advisors wrangle and squabble for his approval, and then once it gets to a critical point, he comes in with no information, not having been close to it at all and without regard to the process because he ended this potential breakthrough without any consultation with his government. It was unilateral.

KELLY: Richard Holbrooke had a flair for the dramatic. What would he have made of the idea of inviting the Taliban to Camp David?

PACKER: I think he would have been horrified by it. It would have been giving them a platform that they hadn't deserved and didn't need. Why did we have to do it here? It was Khalilzad who had come close to this breakthrough, and the president had nothing to say to the Taliban. There was nothing he could have added to the talks.

And I also think Holbrooke would have probably driven a harder bargain. I mean, there was no ceasefire in place. There's no sense that we can really trust the Taliban to hold their end of whatever bargain we strike, including their promise not to give another safe haven to al-Qaida, as they did in the '90s.

KELLY: George Packer, thank you.

PACKER: Thank you.

KELLY: He is staff writer for The Atlantic and author of the book "Our Man: Richard Holbrooke And The End Of The American Century." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.