Conversations With America: A Discussion on Afghanistan and Pakistan

Richard Holbrooke
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
World Affairs Council Chairman Marc Grossman
Washington, DC
April 19, 2010

MR. CROWLEY: Hello, from the Department of State in Washington, DC. I’m Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs P.J. Crowley and thank you for joining us for this Conversations with America, the first in a series of video discussions regarding U.S. Department of State and our foreign policy. And we have a couple of distinguished Americans here joining us, and both a current diplomat and a foreign diplomat and now a leader of a nongovernmental organization.

This initiative allows you to – the opportunity to join this conversation by submitting questions through the State Department’s blog DipNote. We’re very proud of it. And over the past few days, we have received many questions on today’s topic, which is Afghanistan and Pakistan, from people across the United States. We have received questions from those countries as well as India. We have selected a few among those questions for a discussion toward – during the course of this broadcast.

But today the topic is the Obama Administration’s work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we’re joined by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and also Ambassador Marc Grossman who is now the chairman of the World Affairs Councils of America but previously had served as Under Secretary of Policy here earlier in this decade. They both have distinguished records of public service and promoting democracy and diplomacy worldwide.

The State Department has been working closely with the United States Agency for International Development, the Defense Department and the National Security Council to achieve the United States’s strategic goals in the region. It has become clear that dealing with the situation in Afghanistan requires an integrated strategy that works with both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole as well as engaging NATO and other key friends, allies, and those around the world who are interested in supporting these efforts. And over the past year, we have taken concrete steps to advance our work in key areas in both countries. The United States has made a long-term commitment to help these countries in a variety of areas including humanitarian relief and assistance, capacity building, security needs, counternarcotic programs, and infrastructure projects.

Today, Ambassador Grossman will have the opportunity to ask Ambassador Holbrooke about our work in these countries over the past year and discuss our goals and vision for the long-term success in these countries. Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming. And, Marc, perhaps you should ask the first question of Richard.

MR. GROSSMAN: Well, P.J., thank you very much.

And, Ambassador, nice to be here with you.

Let me, first of all, say what an honor it is for the World Affairs Councils of America to be involved in this experiment in public diplomacy. One of the things that is sure is that there will be no successful diplomacy for the United States unless there is really strong backing from it – from the public. And it’s an honor to be here with Ambassador Holbrooke, who I have known and admired for many years. And he’s got one of the toughest jobs in the United States given to him by the President and the Secretary, and we wish him well.

I also, if I could, just wanted to take one moment to thank all of those military and civilian who are serving the United States of America in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I know that the members of the World Affairs Councils of America would want to send them their very best. They’re doing important things on the front lines of the United – for the United States of America.

It’s clear, I think, all along that Afghanistan matters. It’s the source of 9/11. It’s still a huge challenge in the region. We’ve invested largely our blood and our treasure in this. We’ve got friends who are involved there as well. And so we look forward to this discussion in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan matters as well; an important country struggling with its future, with nuclear weapons. These are two of the most important issues that face the United States.

So if I could, Ambassador, I would just start, I think, which would be on the minds of many of our members, which would be, kind of in a nutshell, what’s our strategy there? Can you describe it in a sentence or two? And more importantly, or even as importantly, do we have a chance to achieve it?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: First of all, I’m glad to be here and I’m honored to be the inaugural speaker. I’ve spent many, many pleasant moments all over the country talking to the World Affairs Councils as a private citizen in my previous jobs and to share the platform with Marc Grossman who understates our relationship. Technically, he actually worked for me when he was ambassador in Turkey. I say technically because he didn’t always do what I asked him to do. (Laughter.) And he succeeded me in another job at the European Bureau and he’s one of our most distinguished diplomats and we’ve been friends a long time. And the World Affairs Councils of America are glad to have this revitalizing effort. The World Affairs Councils are really important. They are a source of information in local communities, and I love this experiment and I hope it works.

Now what was your question again? (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: My question was –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Two sentences – he just gave me two sentences.

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: I gave you one on Pakistan and one on Afghanistan and –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: So two sentences –

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: And then a sentence on strategy –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Will it work? So, let me be serious for a minute. Why are we in Afghanistan is a question I’m asked repeatedly. We recognize that it’s a daunting mission. It is a difficult and remote area of the world with its very powerful traditional culture and we also recognize its history. And yet we are committed there since September 11, 2001 for the simplest of reasons: It was on Afghan soil and from Afghan soil that the attacks on Washington and New York were plotted and directed.

And so the previous administration sent troops into Afghanistan and drove the Taliban out and with them al-Qaida. Now, the Taliban had -- the Taliban were not directly involved in 9/11, but they sheltered and allowed al-Qaida and took no action against them. So, as President Bush said, they were complicitous in the attack.

They then moved east into Pakistan and there they nested, both of them, al-Qaida and the remnants of the Taliban. The Taliban reconstructed and began attacking American troops again, and al-Qaida continued to plot jihad all over the world.

So it seemed axiomatic as the new Administration took office 15 months ago that this was the highest priority national security item facing the United States. And the President immediately agreed to a request from our commanders on the ground to send 21,000 additional troops to the country to avoid an imminent disaster. That’s not an easy decision for President Obama to take, and just weeks after he took office, but it was essential. He changed commanders and he put in General McChrystal, an extraordinary man who I’ve gotten to know very well. And General McChrystal, after making an assessment, asked for additional troops and he was given 30,000 additional troops.

We are in Afghanistan to strengthen them and make sure that al-Qaida doesn’t return. We are also in Pakistan without military troops, but with a vast array of economic, political, psychological, and other instruments in order to strengthen the Pakistanis, who have their own set of problems – economic, political, and regional – in order to strengthen them.

This is not an easy policy. No one pretends otherwise. So once again, to go back to your core question, we’re there because our homeland security, our national interests require it. We will persevere because we have to.

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: I appreciate that and I think it’s very important to keep coming back to this point of it was the source of 9/11 geographically and ideologically. I’d like to just focus for a minute on the very beginning of your answer where you talked about the traditional nature of Afghanistan and the traditional culture. It’s a country of tribes, of clans, of families. And as you look forward and work with President Karzai and the others in Afghanistan, do you see a day where the central government will be able to provide the kind of security that will be necessary for development in Afghanistan?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Let me answer you on two levels. First of all, there have been many polls taken on Afghanistan, the most recent by the BBC, ABC, and the German network, ARD. Every poll shows that the number of people who actually support the Taliban and their odious social movement and what they stand for is in the mid-single digits, 7 or 8 percent. So there is no great desire for the Taliban to return. And even that is geographically concentrated.

Secondly, a central government running the country in the sense that many people think is not going to happen in Afghanistan. It’s never had a strong central government that ran the whole country. But many countries are compromises between a single unitary government and a federal structure including, I might point out, the United States. We would not be a nation today if we didn’t have states with their own powers and authorities. And in Afghanistan, they have provinces, but it isn’t the provinces that matter per se so much as the ethnic groups and the regional balances and outside influences, because Afghanistan is the poorest state outside of Africa in the world. Because it has a tremendous amount of problems economically, outside powers have always been able to prey on it. And so we’re not seeking to create or emphasize a unitary system of government. We’re trying to support the Pakistanis’ – I mean, excuse me, the Afghans’ own view of their own political structure in accordance with their own constitution and their own methods of operating. They have done remarkably well against their history in light of the fact that they’ve been at war of 30 years.

On the other hand, they’re still at war. They’re being constantly attacked by the Taliban operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan. They are surrounded by complicated neighbors. Let’s never forget that on their western side is Iran. They have a huge set of problems including poverty, disease, a tremendously high illiteracy rate. And it’s going to take a lot of work. We are committed to that. Afghanistan gets a very large aid program not only from the U.S., but the international community. And I don’t want to leave the impression we’re against the central government. We’re not. But President Karzai himself will tell you that you can’t run the whole country in a unitary method the way, let’s say, Japan or France, very centralized countries.

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: Could I just again go to the beginning of that very good answer about public opinion and Afghanistan? I’m interested in your take on public opinion in Pakistan. My first post in the Foreign Service was Pakistan and I can remember traveling there, especially in the Swat Valley. I was really struck last year when al-Qaida and the Taliban pushed into the Swat Valley very close to Islamabad. And it seemed as if public opinion in Pakistan said, “No, we don’t want this. We don’t want to live this way,” and that the Government of Pakistan needed to respond. And I was wondering whether my observation would be whether you think it’s right, whether there’s that same kind of public opinion in Pakistan that says, “We want to decide how we want to live and we don’t want to be told how to live by al-Qaida or the Taliban.”

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I think your description of what happened in the Swat Valley is exactly right. There was a push-back and the turning point was that video of the teenage girl being flogged. There was a backlash. And the army was reeling from a decade of military rule. And at first they were very concerned about how to deal with that. But then under leadership of General Kayani, the head of the army, the army reasserted itself very vigorously early last year. And the result was a dramatic – three outcomes: one, a dramatic increase in the army’s popularity inside Pakistan; secondly, the retaking of most of Swat and then a subsequent offensive in South Waziristan; and finally, working with the United States, the picking up of some very important Taliban leaders including Mullah Baradar, the number two person in the Taliban. So as we look at Pakistan itself and as we look at U.S.-Pakistani relations today compared to 15 months ago, we feel there’s been a lot of improvement.

Three weeks ago, Secretary Clinton chaired the U.S.-Pakistani Strategic Dialogue. That was a tremendous step forward. And you will recall when you were in the State Department that that was chaired by you. With all due respect, Ambassador Grossman, the upgrade – (laughter). Well, P.J. and I would say that’s an upgrade. (Laughter.)

MR. CROWLEY: I’d have to agree.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I want all the people out there to know how much we admire Marc. But to go from Marc Grossman to Hillary Rodham Clinton is a demonstration of how important – how much importance we attach to U.S.-Pakistani relations. That session, which will be repeated in Islamabad later this year, early next year, is part of a tremendous increase in U.S.-Pakistani relations on their own merits. But Pakistan is a complicated country that faces huge economic energy and water problems. You mentioned the nuclear weapons. It has a longstanding set of concerns vis-à-vis its giant neighbor to the east which have to be dealt with. And it faces an insurgency in the west which is very dangerous both to them and to the United States because it’s from that area in the western part of the country that attacks are launched against American and NATO troops.

And in this overall context, the Pakistanis are dealing with their problems, but it is – it needs our support. Last year, Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar and Chairman Berman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed some very farsighted legislation which gave – which authorized $7.5 billion over five years in economic assistance. And that money has now been funded, that bill has been funded, and the reason I was late this morning was I came from a meeting at the White House in which we were discussing that very issue. And we’re looking for ways we can help Pakistan strengthen itself, strengthen democracy, and help it fight the insurgents in the west.

MR. CROWLEY: To pick up on that point, we had a question from Ijahs (phonetic) in Pakistan about the acute shortage of energy that is severely affecting the economic growth of Pakistan, so talk about why energy is important in changing the relationship between Pakistan, the central government, and its citizenry. When you think about fighting extremism that might begin in Pakistan in the northwest provinces that emanate from there, you don’t think about regulation of electricity as being that kind of tool, but this is really innovative.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: The largest Muslim city in the world is Karachi, 18 million people. Last summer when I was there, it had days on which – hot days on which they had only four hours of electricity in many parts of the city. This is not acceptable, and the people are understandably concerned about this. The United States – this Administration came into office with – inheriting a policy which had not focused on the needs of the bulk of the Pakistanis – 175 million people – and our concerns were solely with one area, the 4.5 million people live in the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. That’s a hugely important area and we have special programs for it.

But Secretary Clinton decided to reemphasize the rest of the people. And what did she turn to first? Energy. And she announced on her amazing trip in October, which Secretary Crowley and I were on, she made major energy announcements. She announced six projects immediately. We signed the memorandum on two of them already. There are also some water projects in the works. And I want to assure anyone in Pakistan who’s watching that, led by President Obama and the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we are putting more and more emphasis on energy and water issues, and we will continue to do that up to the absolute limits of what the Congress will fund. It is a big issue.

We are also working very hard to – with the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, in order to make sure that the standby agreements are extended. We are working with the Pakistani leadership on every one of the economic, water, and energy issues that we can. This is a vast undertaking, and because we have worldwide commitments, we the United States cannot do it all alone. And that’s why I would avoid a phrase like the Marshall Plan, because the Marshall Plan was an American-only thing for Europe in a different era. But the international community has responded. And led by the United States, we collected money for the internally displaced people in Swat. We went to Tokyo last April and had a major conference which raised $5.5 billion of commitments. They haven’t all arrived yet but they’re still in the process of arriving. And we want to do more than that for Pakistan. We’ve got a whole array of ideas here. And we want to work with the government and we do work closely with the government.

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: Just let me follow up on the question of the international community. Or first let me say that I think that the recognizing the importance of energy, of water, of IDPs, this is a new kind of diplomacy where you have to look at things as a whole and you have to look at them simultaneously, and that’s extremely important.

I’m very glad that you mentioned the others that are involved in this. And I’d like to just focus for a minute on NATO and Afghanistan.


AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: I was going to say, NATO, Japan – there have been real sacrifices that people have made.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Japan is a huge contributor here.


AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: They’re paying the entire salaries of the Afghan police right now, the whole salaries. They have quadrupled their aid since the new government took over.

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: I think the Japanese, the others, Australians who have worked there –


AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: I’d just like to focus for a minute, though, on NATO, where you’ve had countries that have made real sacrifices – Canadians, British, others – and I was wondering, in your assessment, whether that NATO mission is as important as people say, that the whole future of the alliance will depend on what happens in Afghanistan and the outcome and whether you’re satisfied, happy, getting enough support from the NATO countries on the military side.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: It’s ironic; when you and I started working together under President Clinton, there was a huge debate in Europe as to whether Bosnia was out of the NATO area. I kept saying, what are you talking about? Bosnia is inside the NATO area. But there was a lot of arguments in places like Germany about – Portugal, whether it was part of NATO.

Now they are embarked on an area which is truly out of area. And, in other words, every NATO country needs to decide, as we have, that what happens in this remote area is of importance to them. NATO decided that after 9/11. But each individual country then had to decide what it meant on the ground, and that’s where we are now. And most of the countries have come through. There are a couple of countries that have set time limits, which is something they have to do for themselves. They’re democracies. But I hope the NATO alliance sticks together because I think it is hugely important. Secretary Clinton will be in Estonia, volcanic ash permitting, on April 23rd for the NATO ministerial and that will be the main topic of discussion –

MR. CROWLEY: Let me pick up here –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Volcanic ash permitting.

MR. CROWLEY: Jesse (ph) in California has written us, what is the overall economic strategy for countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan? And in the headlines, there obviously have been – and appropriately so – a lot of emphasis on 30,000 more troops for Afghanistan and the military components that go on both sides of that border. But you’re equally as proud of 1,000 civilians who are really trying to – and a corresponding number in Pakistan – that are really trying to transform the economies of both countries.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Slightly less number in Pakistan, but when we took office there were under 300 American civilians in Afghanistan. They were on six-month tours. Most of them never left the compound in Kabul. We now are, as P.J. said, over a thousand with a much larger increase in the field. We have civilians from AID, from the State Department, from the DEA, from all sorts of parts of the government going in with the troops all over the countries they advance.

If any of you out there wish to be considered, just send a – we hire a lot from the outside. We have special hiring provisions. Just contact P.J. He’ll take care of it for you. (Laughter.)

No, but seriously –

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: (Inaudible) (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Seriously, we are looking for qualified people – agronomists and rule-of-law experts and so on. We now have one-year tours. And actually, I think we ought to have longer tours, but one year is a big improvement over six months.

Now, in terms of what we’re doing, we are helping the Government of Afghanistan help itself. Here’s the most important point: We are not going to replace the government and do it for them. The government must do it for themselves. Anyone who’s studied the history of this kind of war – like Vietnam, where I served three and a half years – will tell you that we don’t want to fall into the dependency trap where we take over the responsibilities of the government and they become more and more dependent on us. This is equally true of the police and army. The only way that the NATO troops will gradually phase out – and there will be withdrawals starting in July of next year; President Obama’s announced that – is if the army and the police of Afghanistan take over the responsibility, and that is essential.

So as I said earlier, the Japanese are paying the police salaries. The training is being run under the international military command, called ISAF – International Security Assistance Force, which is really NATO plus some non-NATO countries like Australia and New Zealand, which – and some very important countries from the Muslim world like Jordan, UAE, and others which are participating.

Now on the civilian side, there are a vast array of vitally important programs which involve many, many countries. And the UN is there. The Indians have a big agricultural program, for which – which I think is very useful. And we have rule-of-law. It’s a tremendous array of programs which get no attention.

Our number one non-security priority is agriculture. It’s an 80 percent agricultural country. It used to export, until 1978. It exported grapes and pomegranates and pistachios and almonds. They were world famous as – at least famous in Asia as the breadbasket of Central Asia. Afghans are very good farmers. But it was all destroyed, and once again we had only 12 Americans working on agriculture in the whole country a year ago. Today, we’re up to about a hundred, plus agro-business teams of National Guard from five American states which are out there: Nebraska, Texas, several others. I apologize for not knowing all by heart, but we have wonderful National Guard units. So the agriculture program has now become a massive one.

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: And connect that now – first of all, I think we should go back to thanking all the people, both civilian and military, who are serving our country there. But now connect that point about agriculture, an extremely important one, to the point about narcotics and counternarcotics, and how do those two strategies fit together?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, the – once again, we inherited a situation where we were spending less money on agriculture than we were on eradicating poppies. When we eradicated poppies, we were creating Taliban because we were alienating farmers, taking away their source of money. And they – I don’t blame them for doing the best available crop. So we eliminated American involvement in poppy eradication. Some of it still goes on at the local level by local governors, but we’re out of that business. Somewhat controversial, but I’m certain it was the right decision. And we put the money into agriculture.

There are better crops than poppies. Pomegranates – but they take a couple of years for the trees to grow, so we have a cash-for-work program which tides them over during the transition period. Almonds, pistachios, grapes – and we’re pushing all of those things, with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Afghans have a very good minister of agriculture. He will be here, by the way, with President Karzai on May 10th through 14th, when we have an extremely important trip coming up. President Obama has invited President Karzai to come to the United States. And we’re – and our number one project right now is planning for that trip.

But to go back to your question: agriculture up; crop eradication down. There’s a third (inaudible), however. That didn’t mean we were giving up on drugs. On the contrary, General McChrystal and his forces are now heavily focused on going after drug lords, traffickers, destroying drug bazaars, destroying drug paraphernalia. So we think that this triple adjustment – no more eradication, heavy emphasis on going after the drug traffickers, and heavy emphasis on agriculture – has fixed an imbalance. Every Afghan we talk to is in favor of this.

Some of the internationals are concerned because they think we should keep eradicating crops, but that just alienates people and drives them into the hands of the Taliban.

AMBASSADOR GROSSMAN: Well, especially if they don’t have anything else to do.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: And we know this, Mark. We know this from our information, our intelligence reports. The Taliban lost a great recruiting tool when we started emphasizing job-producing agriculture and stopped eradicating poppies.

MR. CROWLEY: It’s impossible to get into a detailed and complex area like South Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in a 30-minute timeframe, but we we’ll consider this a down payment. We’ll come back, perhaps, for another conversation on this. But gentlemen, thank you very, very much.

And I think, hopefully for those who are watching on the internet, you see the importance of diplomacy and development alongside defense in the execution of a balanced national security strategy on behalf of the United States of America. So thank you very much for joining us and we look forward to having future Conversations with America. Have a good day.