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Holbrooke on Afghanistan: The New American Determination

By in Brussels

Richard Holbrooke, the new US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, wants to explain Obama's policy on Afghanistan to NATO and the EU. He gave the first details at a conference this weekend in Brussels. One thing is certain: The operation will become more American -- and probably bloodier.

They were just a couple of words, but they said a lot. Richard Holbrooke was sitting on the stage of the Brussels Forum, addressing high-ranking Europeans and Americans who had gathered at the invitation of the German Marshall Fund. You could have heard a pin drop in the ballroom as the recently appointed US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan explained the new American strategy in those countries. Holbrooke sighed as he said that this is one of the conflicts where US forces were furthest away from their supply routes. "We Americans," he said in reference to this far-off war. Then he quickly caught himself and added, almost sheepishly, "and NATO."

US Marines in Afghanistan: The operation is set to become more American.
Getty Images

US Marines in Afghanistan: The operation is set to become more American.

Indeed, the defense alliance seemed almost peripheral during Holbrooke's presentation. Admittedly, he referred to a comprehensive Western strategy, the link between civil society and the military and the need for a more intelligent approach towards the insurgents.

But his underlying signal was one of American determination. The Americans are about to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and in doing so they're unlikely to pay much attention to NATO structures.

Holbrooke is scheduled to outline the new American strategy in the region to representatives from the NATO and EU on Monday. The White House has commissioned a variety of secret strategy scenarios on this, and the result appears to be that the Afghanistan mission is evolving more than ever into a US mission. And it's likely to become -- at least initially -- an even bloodier operation.

"The situation is bad today, when it shouldn't be, because the international community, including, I regret to say, the United States, perhaps especially the United States, prematurely decided that they were doing OK and refocused their attention on Iraq," said Holbrooke.

He poured scorn on speculation that the West may be preparing a "minimalist" approach to Afghanistan that focuses more narrowly on security and counter-terrorism. "There's nothing minimalist about trying to help a country protect itself against a group of people who are in turn the outer rim of an international terrorist movement," said Holbrooke. "It's a daunting task. Let no one underestimate the difficulty of it. The people of Europe, and the people of the United States, have to decide whether it matters to make this effort."

John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, later added that talk of a reductionist approach is "dangerously and fundamentally wrong." Political leaders must convince their citizens that the mission will take years, not months -- and that more soldiers will initially mean more violence, said McCain.

The numbers under discussion are huge. According to a figure cited by the New York Times, the US wants to aim for a combined total of about 400,000 Afghan troops and police officers. "I think (these numbers) were speculative," Holbrooke told the forum, but added that there would be "a significant increase, for sure." When Barack Obama took office, Holbrooke said, it was initially planned to increase the total for the Afghan National Police from 78,000 to 82,000. "Now, everyone we talk to, without exception -- Afghans, insurgency experts, the government, American military -- agrees that was not sufficient." In recent months, US criticism of the state of police training in Afghanistan, which the Germans have helped with, has become louder.

Holbrooke's approach also calls for a new focus on Pakistan, which many of the militant fighters in the region use as a safe haven for operations in Afghanistan. "We must recognize that the heart of the threat to (the West) comes from the people in western Pakistan," he said. "You can't separate the civilian and the military aspects of the war in Afghanistan. And you can't succeed in Afghanistan if you don't solve the problem of western Pakistan."

Holbrooke said that Congress is hoping for more European support on Afghanistan as a result of the financial crisis. "Every member of Congress I've talked to, (says) 'We'll do our part but we hope the Europeans will do more on their side, as well.'"

Richard Holbrooke at the Brussels Forum: "You can't succeed in Afghanistan if you don't solve the problem of western Pakistan."
DPA

Richard Holbrooke at the Brussels Forum: "You can't succeed in Afghanistan if you don't solve the problem of western Pakistan."

But how can extremists in western Pakistan be combated? Operations on Pakistani soil are not an option. Hence more civilian aid to help the unstable country is the only possibility. Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, referred to Berlin aid for an initiative of this kind in Pakistan, which Holbrooke praised. The Pakistan economy, Holbrooke said, is "in terribly difficult straits," adding that "the country (is) in tremendous need of international attention and support."

"The money is there in the budget," said Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. "If Afghanistan is a priority, we need to prioritize the priority, which is to say concentrate resources (where) they are most needed."

Will more military assistance in Afghanistan from the Europeans also become a priority once again? EU diplomats seem to assume that at the NATO summit in early April, the Americans will not demand new troop contributions, but will want to concentrate on taking care of the hard fighting by themselves. "The American review of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan certainly recognizes the importance of policing, of a wide range of activities that are needed to strengthen the institutions in Afghanistan, ... and that is part of the German contribution," Anne-Marie Slaughter, the newly appointed planning chief for the US State Department, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

But for how long can the political truce hold if the Americans are concentrating their efforts in the hotly contested southern part of the country while German and many other European soldiers participate primarily as police trainers in the secure north? Robert Kagan, a conservative journalist and foreign policy advisor to John McCain during the last election, warns: "While the Americans increase their troop levels, others draw back ... It is not fair if some do the fighting and dying."

But the Germans know that this debate isn't over yet -- including the issue of whether or not Germany should send troops to southern Afghanistan. In one telling scene at the Brussels conference, Volker Stanzel, political director of the German Foreign Ministry, evoked the scope of his country's contribution. "These troops are in northern Afghanistan," he said. "Is there a broad insurgency in the north? No."

To many, it appeared the diplomat was suggesting that this was because German operations there had been so successful. The muttering that broke out was palpable. Stanzel said he didn't actually mean it as a joke. "But it is interesting to see what kind of reactions this sparks here," the panel moderator told Stanzel. An Indian member of the panel jeered: "If the Germans have been so successful in the north, then maybe you should send them into the south."

Holbrooke warned that governments had to make it clear to their populations that the US and other countries are fighting in this distant land because it directly affects their national security interests. It was a line not unlike words uttered once by Peter Struck, who was German defense minister under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and famously said that Germany's security "is also defended in the Hindu Kush."

That was a long time ago, though, and political backing for the mission has since diminished considerably in Berlin. As German parliamentarian Polenz commented: "If you quote this phrase (today), people smile at you. They don't understand it."

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