Holbrooke Fills the Gap

Afghanistan. The nomination of an experienced American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, as the new ambassador to Afghanistan, brings new hope for a diplomatic solution that could finally stop the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

The new Obama team seems to favor the diplomatic route of the use of force in dealing with its most prickly foreign policy challenges, notably the anti-terrorist battles in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The proof: a seasoned diplomat and experienced peace negotiator has been nominated this week to the post of special envoy to the United States for these two sources of tension. This American emissary is none other than Richard Holbrooke, whose appointment was announced this week by the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. It is a judicious choice that emphasizes the importance that Obama gives to diplomacy, because Holbrooke is none other than the architect of the renowned Dayton Accords that put an end to the war in Bosnia (1992-95). In accepting his new role, Holbrooke characterized the Bush administration’s treatment of Afghanistan as a failure, recognizing that his task will be long and difficult.

In nominating a special envoy to Afghanistan for the first time, and by doing it on his first day in office, the new president began distancing himself from his predecessor George W. Bush, declaring that a new approach was necessary to stop terrorism. He affirmed that “we must recognize that American power comes not only from its armed forces or from its wealth, but also from its values.” Before his inaugural address in Washington, Obama gave priority to forging a hard-won peace in Afghanistan, specifying that his administration has begun a careful examination of the American policy in that country. A task promised and due. Did not Obama repeat throughout his campaign that this area of the globe is “a key to the fight against terrorism,” and even promised to reinforce the American troops?

But a new approach in no way signifies a quick solution to this complicated web of terrorism. This week, the new president acknowledged the harsh reality of the tasks ahead for his emissary. Just after Holbrooke’s nomination, the top American voiced a somber view of the Afghan situation, singling out the administration of Hamid Karzai. “The situation in Afghanistan is perilous and will require time to achieve progress. The Afghan government has shown that it cannot provide even the most fundamental services, and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are establishing bases in tribal zones that are difficult to access along the Pakistan frontier,” said the American president.

A way of underlining the need to reinforce the American forces in Afghanistan is needed, for promoting diplomacy does not mean renouncing the use of force. Around 20,000 American Marines could be deployed to Afghanistan because of scheduled reinforcements to fight the insurrection, declared General James Conway, the Marine commander. These Marines will surely be deployed in the south of Afghanistan, where representatives of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) estimate that their forces are not sufficient to fight the growing influence of the Taliban’s campaigns. Another 30,000 Americans would also be sent as reinforcements in Afghanistan during the next 12 to 18 months. The United States currently has 34,000 soldiers stationed there, of which 2,200 are Marines.

Diplomacy and force together? The new American strategy seems ambiguous at first glance: how to support the dialogue and send troops at the same time. In analyzing this strange, seemingly contradictory American duality, Dr. Hicham Ahmad, political science and economics professor at the University of Cairo, explains: “Obama’s political strategy is focused well. It plays on two aspects. On the one hand, it tends to encourage dialogue between the Karzai government and the moderate elements of the Taliban in order to weaken the right-wing militia, which is why he nominated an experienced mediator like Holbrooke. On the other hand, he reinforces his military presence in the country to fight the right wing of the Taliban, who will be much weaker and isolated after the retreat of the moderates. This two-sided strategy will come to fruition in the long term.”

In light of the new American strategy in Afghanistan, persistent questions arise: what are the chances for success of the new Obama team and notably Holbrooke’s mission in the region? Does the new emissary’s success in Bosnia necessarily imply success in Afghanistan? According to Dr. Hicham Ahmad, Holbrooke’s Afghan mission is much more complicated, much more intricate, than that in Bosnia, because the military defeats in Afghanistan are many. “The chance of success in Afghanistan is possible, but in the long term, perhaps a very long term. Holbrooke must first familiarize himself with the terrain. Engaging in a positive dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban is a mission that will require much effort to come to a compromise. The Taliban will no doubt demand that it share the power, and there begins the negotiating…,” explains Ahmad.

In effect, the military option will not succeed until the diplomatic option succeeds because resorting to force alone in this region is hazardous, particularly because its terrain is mountainous and perilous, making combat ineffective. In addition, the hunted Taliban have an alternative: run from the attacks toward the other frontier, where they have support from the Pashtoun tribes in Pakistan.

Disappointing realities, but the new emissary is well aware of them already. In accepting his new functions, Holbrooke called his mission intimidating, emphasizing that the two countries are engaged in a difficult battle against “an enemy without scruples.” He has committed himself to creating coherence with the foreign efforts, which he describes as chaotic. Holbrooke indicated that his work on the Afghan problem in concert with the army chiefs, including David Petraeus, in charge of combat operations in Afghanistan, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Army commander-in-chief. Complicating Holbrooke’s mission even more, the Taliban this week seemed more defiant than ever, vindicated by a rapid American retreat. “We have no problem with Obama, but he must take lessons from Bush’s politics, and before that, the Soviets, who occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, when they were forced to evacuate due to the ferocious resistance of the Afghan Moudjahidines,” declared Yousuf Ahmadi, spokesperson for the Taliban, adding that the only solution for them is to leave Afghanistan.

Despite the presence of over 70,000 foreign soldiers, half of them Americans, the Taliban insurrection has intensified in the past two years and has gained territory, thanks to the support of Al-Qaeda. On Saturday, east of Kabul, fifteen insurgents were killed in a coalition operation headed by the Americans. The operation targeted a Taliban chief responsible for strikes and attacks against international forces, including the ambush in August 2008 during which ten French soldiers were killed. The new American strategy against terrorism has started… we must now wait for results.

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