KABUL -- Try to picture the unlikely scene here Monday: A brash U.S. diplomat and America's top military officer are sitting at a conference table with a ferocious-looking delegation of bearded and turbaned Afghan tribal leaders, including one man who spent two years as a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. And they are soliciting the tribal chieftains' advice on U.S. policy options in the Afghanistan war.
A weathered man from Paktia province, the spokesman for the group, fixes the American dignitaries with an unblinking gaze that seems to come out of another millennium. The United States once helped Afghanistan fight against Russian invaders, he says, but now it is walking in the Russians' shoes. America should stop killing Afghan civilians and start talking with some of the Taliban insurgents about how to end the war, he recommends.
And the Americans nod. Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a man sometimes known for being headstrong and pushy, asks the tribal leaders sweetly, "What attracts people to the Taliban?" Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admits to the group that it took the military "too long to recognize the damage we've done with house searches and bombings" and promises that he will consider new ways to limit such harm for the civilian population.
So it went over two days here, as the American officials took the Obama administration's new Afghanistan policy on the road to Kabul. The centerpiece of the plan, announced late last month, is 4,000 more U.S. troops to train the Afghan army and police. In addition to briefing the tribal elders, the two met with delegations of dissident politicians, female parliamentarians, agricultural experts and Muslim leaders from a council known as the ulema.
To each group, Holbrooke and Mullen repeated the same message: The United States isn't supporting or opposing any candidate in the August presidential election; it is spending billions to train Afghanistan's army and police so that U.S. and coalition forces can leave sooner; and it is seeking dialogue with some of the adversaries America is now fighting on the battlefield.
It was a bravura diplomatic show, and it seemed to have the desired effect. "This is exactly what we've been waiting for," said Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan's minister of the interior. He described the Obama policy as "Afghanization" of the war, and he predicted that most of his countrymen would "wholeheartedly support" it. President Hamid Karzai, who rated little more time with the American visitors than did the ulema, may not have been so enthusiastic, given America's neutrality in the election.
Some common messages emerged: Many Afghans specifically blamed Pakistan and its intelligence service, known as the ISI, for funding the Taliban insurgency; they criticized the Karzai government's corruption; and they lauded Holbrooke's pet project for sharply boosting aid to Afghanistan's agricultural sector.
The Afghanistan visit was an unusual exercise in strategic listening for a superpower that during the Bush years treated communications strategy as a problem of talking more loudly. It was especially interesting to see Holbrooke in listening mode. "Give us advice on reconciliation with the Taliban," he implored the religious leaders. "What other suggestions do you have?" he asked the tribal chiefs.
The upbeat tour was deceptive, in a way, in its suggestion that Afghanistan's problems can be fixed by more open talk. An illustration of how hard it will be to turn the war around comes in a security map displayed in Atmar's office. Districts where the insurgency poses a high threat are colored in red; those that are enemy controlled are black. There is an arc of nearly unbroken red and black across the southern half of the country, where more than half the population lives.
Across town, in the U.S. military commanders' conference room, the headline on a PowerPoint slide reads: "The Glass Is Half-Full!" Maybe so, but there's a summer of heavy fighting ahead, and Obama's war may get worse before it gets better.
Watching Holbrooke make nice with the Afghans, the headline that occurred to me was: "Bulldozer Meets Quagmire." A diplomat who began his foreign-service career in Saigon was here searching for a pathway to avoid another Vietnam.
And Afghanistan isn't even the biggest worry for Holbrooke and Mullen. What scares them more is the Taliban insurgency in neighboring Pakistan, where they landed late Monday night on the next stop on the policy road show. As one of the wizened Afghan tribal elders admonished: "Fix the ISI and you will solve the problem."