The best diplomats walk a fine line between flattery and the Stockholm syndrome. The more dire the situation, the easier it is to lose perspective, to mistake a shift in body language for a breakthrough, to mistake a breakthrough for a solution. And so it was slightly disconcerting to hear Richard Holbrooke, our very best diplomatic negotiator, deploying words like "extraordinary" and "unprecedented" to describe the recent round of talks with delegations from Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington, during a White House briefing for columnists just after the talks ended. He was flanked by General David Petraeus, who reinforced Holbrooke's message. The talks "exceeded my expectations," the general said. A good deal of this is, obviously, puffery designed to keep the diplomatic balloon aloft. But there was also, I'd guess, some wishful thinking involved.
There really were breakthroughs in the talks. But these were bureaucratic advances, the sort that only occasionally lead to actual changes. Holbrooke was well aware of this, of course, and he was quick to say that "no one is promising that this will win the war." He then added, with a certain pride of authorship, "But success isn't possible if we didn't do it." And he's right: for the first time, Afghan and Pakistani Ministers of the Interior sat down and hammered out a rudimentary agreement on information-sharing. Agricultural and trade delegations also met, as did, most significant of all, military and intelligence representatives. (The idea that the Afghan intelligence service would break bread with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, which created the Taliban, is mind-boggling.) These advances were given greater heft by positive developments on the ground especially Pakistan's apparent decision to stop the Taliban advance toward Islamabad, using six to eight brigades transferred from the Indian border. (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)
And yet, the rude truth of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was revealed at a lunch the Presidents of both countries attended with 27 U.S. Senators, an event that really did merit a few over-the-top encomiums like "unprecedented" and "brutal." The climax came when Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee asked President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan what the purpose of the U.S. mission was in his country. Karzai filibustered, and Corker told him, in no uncertain terms, that his answer was incomprehensible. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing a few days later, Corker confronted Holbrooke about the lack of credibility both Presidents shared. According to the Obama Administration, Corker said, the Karzai government "is taking more of the illegal [poppy crop] moneys than the Taliban ..." In Pakistan, "the leader was formerly called 'Mr. 10%,'" referring to Asif Ali Zardari's alleged practice of taking kickbacks on contracts when his wife Benazir Bhutto was in charge.
Indeed, neither President is exactly a paragon of statesmanship. The reality in Afghanistan and Pakistan is that both governments have been unable to provide the most basic services security, education, justice for their citizens, which is why the Taliban, which has some fairly strong ideas about law and order, has been able to intimidate its way back into control of some areas. Karzai has an excuse: his country has suffered through 30 years of war, although the alleged participation of his brother in the Kandahar-province opium trade and the utter corruption of the Afghan civil service don't help his reputation much. Zardari has no excuse at all: his country has a brilliant, educated intelligentsia and governing class, but it has been entirely unable to provide the rudiments of civil society to the Pakistani masses, a remarkable indictment. (See pictures of Pakistan's vulnerable North-West Frontier Province.)
"You've got to go with the incompetents you've got," a Senator who supports the Obama Administration's policy told me. "We have no alternative." Holbrooke made a similar point during the hearing. Yes, he said, this situation resembled the war in Vietnam, harking back to his earliest service, as a U.S. diplomat in Saigon. "Structurally, there are many similarities the enemy sanctuaries across the border, the [failure of] governance, corruption ... but there is one core difference: 9/11," he said. "There was no threat from Vietnam to the U.S. homeland."
That is why both Holbrooke and Petraeus will do everything they can to nudge and puff Zardari and Karzai into being statesmen who occasionally act in their own national interest, as Zardari seems to have done by deciding to fight the Taliban. That is why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acted with such alacrity to replace a good general, David McKiernan, with another, Stanley McChrystal, better versed in the tactics used to fight terrorist insurgencies. That is why we are in Afghanistan and Pakistan: because our enemies the people who killed 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001 are festering there. It would be nice if, unlike Vietnam, our "friends" proved as competent as our enemies, but that is where the wishful thinking inevitably begins.