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Holbrooke the dove

The last words of Richard C. Holbrooke, a lion of U.S. diplomacy, were "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan" -- a sentence worth pondering as the United States heads into a fresh round of debate over a conflict that has ground on for more than 9 years, steadily escalating from a sideshow to a nightmare that threatens to consume Barack Obama's presidency.

What did Holbrooke mean? Did he oppose the war? [UPDATE: The Washington Post has a fuller account of Holbrooke's last comment, and one person I've spoken with who was at the hospital last night says it was taken out of context.]

Holbrooke, who until last week was running the civilian side of the Afghan war, had expressed few public doubts about the wisdom of U.S. efforts there. Despite constant sniping at him in the press (and some unkind words in Bob Woodward's latest), he remained officially upbeat about what he was doing, touting U.S. aid efforts in Pakistan, highlighting agricultural programs in Afghanistan, and trying valiantly to broker some sort of modus vivendi between the two South Asian neighbors.

But he clearly had grave doubts about the war. He is quoted in Woodward's book saying that "If there are 10 possible outcomes in Afghanistan, nine of them are bad." Through Woodward, he also criticizes the approach urged by Bruce Riedel, who led the president's first major strategy review in the spring of 2009. It's worth quoting Woodward at length:

The war -- or the American role in the war -- would not end in a military victory, but nearly all the focus had been on the military. There had been little discussion of reconciliation -- how the warring parties could be brought together diplomatically. That might be far off, but it had to be planned. How could the Taliban insurgents be lured off the field? Maybe it was a fantasy. But they had to sincerely try.

The Saudis were already acting as secret intermediaries with elements of the Taliban, but the White House was not seriously engaging the issue. This was the only end for the war in Holbrooke's estimation. How could they not at least consider it?

Holbrooke largely agreed with Biden. He saw the vice president emerging as the adminisration's George Ball, the deputy secretary of state who had opposed the Vietnam escalation. But the length of Bidens's presentation undermined his message, Holbrooke told others.

Like Biden, Holbooke believed that even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them. That might be "the single most important intellectual insight of the year," Holbrooke remarked hours after the first meeting. Al Qaeda was much safer in Pakistan. Why go back to Afghanistan, where there were nearly 68,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 from other NATO countries? And in Afghanistan, the U.S. had all the intelligence and surveillance capability, plus the capability to dispatch massive ground forces, not just Special Operations Forces but batallions of regular troops and the CIA's 3,000-man pursuit teams.

Astonishingly to Holbrooke, that key insight had neither been in Riedel's report, nor had it been discussed that Sunday morning. Where was the no-holds-barred debate? The president had told them not to bite their tongues. Holbrooke had to bite his because he worked for the secretary of state, who was unsure of what course to recommend. But where were the others?

In another part of the book, Holbrooke is quoted saying that the strategy "can't work." Elsewhere, he expresses doubt that the United States can "defeat" the Taliban, complains about the Afghan police ("the weak link") and says provocatively that the U.S. presence itself "is the corrupting force" in Afghanistan. During the fall 2009 strategy review, he told Clinton privately that he supported sending 20,000 troops, but not the full 40,000 the military had requested. But he also opposed the July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops and said flatly at one point, "We're not leaving," urging that the U.S. presence be put on a more sustainable long-term footing.

Holbrooke's relations with the military weren't always smooth. When an aide to Gen. Stanley McChrystal dissed Holbrooke to Rolling Stone as "a wounded animal," he laughed it off, telling reporters, "Worse things have been said about me."

He also had fraught interactions with former national security advisor Jim Jones, whom he clearly viewed as a lightweight (and who in return tended to see Holbrooke's ideas as impractical), and with Jones's deputy, Tom Donilon.

But Holbrooke's biggest problem was with Obama, who in Woodward's estimation "didn't care for" him. The two men just didn't connect. In one painful anecdote, Holbrooke approaches him and asks to be called "Richard," rather than "Dick," because his wife preferred the former.

"Later, the president told others that he found the request highly unusual and even strange," Woodward writes. "Holbrooke was horrified when he learned that his request -- which he had repeated to no one -- had been circulated by the president."

Though we'll get the administration's formal assessment later this week, it's still too early to tell how the new "surge" in Afghanistan is going. But one has to wonder: If Holbrooke and Obama had gotten along better, or if Clinton had been less guarded in her own views, would history be playing out differently?

GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

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