Lute and other NSC staffers cooked up their most audacious plan to undercut Holbrooke shortly before Karzai’s visit to Washington in April 2010. They arranged for him to be excluded from Obama’s Oval Office meeting with the Afghan leader, and then they planned to give Obama talking points for the session that would slight Holbrooke. Among the lines they wanted the president to deliver to Karzai: Everyone in this room represents me and has my trust. The implication would be that Holbrooke, who would not be present, was not Obama’s man. The scheme was foiled when Clinton insisted that Holbrooke attend the session.
With Clinton protecting him, Holbrooke spent far less time worrying about how to save his job than Lute spent trying to fire him. “Doug is out of his depth fighting with me,” Holbrooke told one of his aides. “The White House can’t afford to get rid of me.”
Excerpted from “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post senior correspondent and associate editor, covered the Afghan war from February 2009 to July 2011. The book is based upon his reporting for the newspaper and more than 70 original interviews. Material in this excerpt is drawn from interviews with numerous U.S. government and military officials with direct involvement in Afghan war policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Copyright © 2012 by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Obama could have ordered a stop to the infighting; after all, he favored a negotiated end to the war. But his sympathies lay with his NSC staffers — Holbrooke’s frenetic behavior was the antithesis of Obama’s “no-drama” rule. The president never granted Holbrooke a one-on-one session in the Oval Office, and when he traveled to Afghanistan in March 2010, he took more than a dozen staffers, but not Holbrooke, who was not even informed of the trip in advance. During the Situation Room sessions to discuss Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for more forces in late 2009, Obama kept his views about surging to himself, but he was far less reticent about Holbrooke. At the start of one meeting, Holbrooke gravely compared the “momentous decision” Obama faced to what Lyndon B. Johnson had grappled with during the Vietnam War. “Richard,” Obama said, “do people really talk like that?”
The president’s lack of support devastated Holbrooke’s loyal staff members, who were just as skeptical of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy as Lute and others in the White House were. “The tragedy of it all is that Richard’s views about all of this stuff — about the surge, about Pakistan and about reconciliation — were probably closer to the president’s than anyone else in the administration,” said former Holbrooke senior adviser Vali Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “If the president had wanted to, he could have found a kindred spirit in Richard.”
No clear path to peace
To Holbrooke, a towering man with an irrepressible personality, brokering a deal with the Taliban was the only viable strategy to end the war.
He was convinced that the military’s goal of defeating the Taliban would be too costly and time-consuming, and the chances of success were almost nil, given the safe havens in Pakistan, the corruption of Karzai’s government and the sorry state of the Afghan army.
Obama told his aides that he was interested in a peace deal, and less than two months after he took office, the president said publicly that he was open to seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, comparing such an effort to a U.S. initiative to work with former Sunni militants in Iraq who were willing to break with al-Qaeda.