As Holbrooke entered Jones’s West Wing office, he sensed that the discussion was not going to be about policy, but about him. Holbrooke believed his principal mission was to accomplish what he thought Obama wanted: a peace deal with the Taliban. The challenge energized Holbrooke, who had more experience with ending wars than anyone in the administration. In 1968, he served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam. And in 1995, he forged a deal in the former Yugoslavia to end three years of bloody sectarian fighting.
The discussion quickly wound to Jones’s main point: He told Holbrooke that he should start considering his “exit strategy” from the administration.
As he left the meeting, Holbrooke pulled out his trump card — a call to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was traveling in Saudi Arabia. The following week, Clinton went to see Obama armed with a list of Holbrooke’s accomplishments. “Mr. President,” she said, “you can fire Richard Holbrooke — over the objection of your secretary of state.” But Jim Jones, Clinton said, could not.
Obama backed down, but Jones didn’t, nor did others at the White House. Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.
The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.
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Even after Obama decided not to fire Holbrooke, Jones and his top deputy for Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, kept adding items to a dossier of Holbrooke’s supposed misdeeds that Lute was compiling. They even drafted a cover letter that called him ineffective because he had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government. Lute told NSC staffers that he and Jones planned to use the information to persuade the president to override Clinton’s objection.
In the interim, Jones and Lute sought to put Holbrooke into a box. Officials at the National Security Council would schedule key meetings when Holbrooke was out of town. When they didn’t want him to travel to the region, they refused to allow him to use a military airplane. They even sought to limit the number of aides Holbrooke could take on his trips.