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Afghanistan Feature: How Obama Administration Sabotaged Its Envoy, Richard Holbrooke (Chandrasekaran)

President Obama's eulogy at a memorial for Richard Holbrooke, January 2011

Throughout 2009 and 2010, we documented how in-fighting within the Obama Administration was limiting the efforts of the President's Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, for a political resolution. Holbrooke, noted for his handling of the Balkans crises in the 1990s, died in December 2010, having made little headway both in Afghanistan and in the corridors of Washington.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, writing in The Washington Post, drawing on interviews with Holbrooke's associates goes even farther in his depiction of the conflict: the envoy was not just hindered, he was undermined by others in the Administration.

In late March 2010, President Obama’s national security adviser, James L. Jones, summoned Richard C. Holbrooke to the White House for a late-afternoon conversation. The two men rarely had one-on-one meetings, even though Holbrooke, the State Department’s point man for Afghanistan, was a key member of Obama’s war cabinet.

As Holbrooke entered Jones’s West Wing office, he sensed that the discussion was not going to be about policy, but about him. Holbrooke believed his principal mission was to accomplish what he thought Obama wanted: a peace deal with the Taliban. The challenge energized Holbrooke, who had more experience with ending wars than anyone in the administration. In 1968, he served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam. And in 1995, he forged a deal in the former Yugoslavia to end three years of bloody sectarian fighting.

The discussion quickly wound to Jones’s main point: He told Holbrooke that he should start considering his “exit strategy” from the administration.

As he left the meeting, Holbrooke pulled out his trump card — a call to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was traveling in Saudi Arabia. The following week, Clinton went to see Obama armed with a list of Holbrooke’s accomplishments. “Mr. President,” she said, “you can fire Richard Holbrooke — over the objection of your secretary of state.” But Jim Jones, Clinton said, could not.

Obama backed down, but Jones didn’t, nor did others at the White House. Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.

Even after Obama decided not to fire Holbrooke, Jones and his top deputy for Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, kept adding items to a dossier of Holbrooke’s supposed misdeeds that Lute was compiling. They even drafted a cover letter that called him ineffective because he had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government. Lute told NSC staffers that he and Jones planned to use the information to persuade the president to override Clinton’s objection.

In the interim, Jones and Lute sought to put Holbrooke into a box. Officials at the National Security Council would schedule key meetings when Holbrooke was out of town. When they didn’t want him to travel to the region, they refused to allow him to use a military airplane. They even sought to limit the number of aides Holbrooke could take on his trips.

Lute and other NSC staffers cooked up their most audacious plan to undercut Holbrooke shortly before Karzai’s visit to Washington in April 2010. They arranged for him to be excluded from Obama’s Oval Office meeting with the Afghan leader, and then they planned to give Obama talking points for the session that would slight Holbrooke. Among the lines they wanted the president to deliver to Karzai: Everyone in this room represents me and has my trust. The implication would be that Holbrooke, who would not be present, was not Obama’s man. The scheme was foiled when Clinton insisted that Holbrooke attend the session.

With Clinton protecting him, Holbrooke spent far less time worrying about how to save his job than Lute spent trying to fire him. “Doug is out of his depth fighting with me,” Holbrooke told one of his aides. “The White House can’t afford to get rid of me.”

Obama could have ordered a stop to the infighting; after all, he favored a negotiated end to the war. But his sympathies lay with his NSC staffers — Holbrooke’s frenetic behavior was the antithesis of Obama’s “no-drama” rule. The president never granted Holbrooke a one-on-one session in the Oval Office, and when he traveled to Afghanistan in March 2010, he took more than a dozen staffers, but not Holbrooke, who was not even informed of the trip in advance. During the Situation Room sessions to discuss Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for more forces in late 2009, Obama kept his views about surging to himself, but he was far less reticent about Holbrooke. At the start of one meeting, Holbrooke gravely compared the “momentous decision” Obama faced to what Lyndon B. Johnson had grappled with during the Vietnam War. “Richard,” Obama said, “do people really talk like that?”

The president’s lack of support devastated Holbrooke’s loyal staff members, who were just as skeptical of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy as Lute and others in the White House were. “The tragedy of it all is that Richard’s views about all of this stuff — about the surge, about Pakistan and about reconciliation — were probably closer to the president’s than anyone else in the administration,” said former Holbrooke senior adviser Vali Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “If the president had wanted to, he could have found a kindred spirit in Richard.”

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