Tough Negotiator May Need More Delicate Moves

Richard Holbrooke is a seasoned diplomat, and as the Obama administration's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, faces many challenges. George Packer writes about his recent trip to Afghanistan with Holbrooke in an article for The New Yorker. Packer tells Renee Montagne that Holbrooke's oversized personality makes him uniquely gifted to engineer progress in difficult posts like Afghanistan, but also hinders him from pursuing a more incremental approach when it's needed.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been involved in American diplomacy from Vietnam to the Balkans. The first situation didn't work out so well; the second ended with a peace deal. Now, he's the point man for one of President Obama's biggest challenges.

He is special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the White House is awaiting the final results of the Afghan presidential elections. The White House is also reviewing a request by the top U.S. commander for more troops.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Reporter George Packer of the New Yorker magazine has been traveling with Ambassador Holbrooke, observing how he's trying to do that job. Packer recently went with Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan and describes his experiences in a recent New Yorker article. Packer says the worsening conditions in Afghanistan played up both Holbrooke's strength and weaknesses.

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (New Yorker Magazine): He is a relentless negotiator, fixer, solver of problems, dealmaker. He is what people call a closer. He gets things done. I mean, people try to resist his pressure at their own peril. Henry Kissinger said, if Holbrooke asked you to do something, you might as well say yes. If you say no, you'll eventually say yes, but the journey will be very painful.

But I think his weaknesses are that he is such a man of action that when he's confronted with problems that require a lot of delicacy, he doesn't always have the patience or the subtlety to figure how to maneuver, sort of, in the china shop without breaking the china.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example, let's say, in Afghanistan.

Mr. PACKER: Well, for example, when it comes to our partner in Kabul, the government of Hamid Karzai, there was no secret that Holbrooke was quite critical of Karzai earlier this year. And the Obama administration, itself, seemed impatient with him and eager to be rid of him. But over the course of the year, Karzai has simply outlasted them and he's still here, having apparently illegitimately won reelection.

Whereas Holbrooke, who has all kinds of arguments that he would like to bring to Karzai - whether it's drug dealing in his administration, corruption - each time he pressures Karzai hard, Karzai reacts quite violently and defiantly. And it seems to me, Holbrooke then has to rethink it, recalibrate it and do an end run, but those end runs, so far, haven't worked.

And right now, the Americans are in the position of having to depend on and support a government that may well be seen as illegitimate. And we were in the same position, ironically enough, in Saigon in the '60s where Holbrooke started his career.

MONTAGNE: In one sense, what you're saying is he's stuck - as he was as a young man, with a lot less power, obviously - in Saigon with an illegitimate government in a county that the United States needs a government that it can support in order to get the job done.

Mr. PACKER: Yeah, that's exactly it. As one of his old Vietnam friends, who I met in Kabul, Tim Carney(ph) - who was there to do election monitoring work at the embassy - said to me, Richard knows that these leaders have the strength of their own weakness. In other words, they can sort of dare us to cut off our support, to withdraw our troops. But they know we won't do it, or we're unlikely to do it, as long as we think that we need that government in order to pursue our own goals.

So, in a sense, they can blackmail us and hold us hostage while continuing to govern in a way that undermines our ends, and in the end, their ends. And that was exactly the position that the United States was in with South Vietnam. And chillingly, we're seeing something like that being repeated in Afghanistan as the government of Hamid Karzai drifts farther and farther away from being a reliable and legitimate partner for us against the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: How does that change what Richard Holbrooke has to do?

Mr. PACKER: Well, I think what he's trying to do - and this taps into some of his real strengths - is not simply to harangue and bang on the government of Karzai and Kabul to do what we want them to do. Instead, he's trying in a sense to go around Karzai by setting a really very ambitious set of programs - in aid and development, in strategic communications, in agriculture - through the Afghan government's ministries, but not through the central government.

So, I think this is something Holbrooke can do out in the field, and he's very comfortable out in the field away from the halls of power.

MONTAGNE: So, he can get around President Karzai, because President Karzai won't stop him doing these sorts of nation-building things?

Mr. PACKER: To some extent, but here's the problem that I see: in the last few weeks it's become clear that there's real division within the Obama administration about whether they want to be doing nation building at all. And Holbrooke, in the end, it may well be that the direction Holbrooke will go in is negotiation, which he's also done very well in his career. He famously led the negotiation that ended the war in Bosnia.

Holbrooke may be the guy who Obama is counting on to cut a deal with the Taliban and with Pakistan in order to find a way for the United States to get out of this counterinsurgency. And in that case, Holbrooke, the nation builder, will turn into Holbrooke the dealmaker.

MONTAGNE: Although, in order to make a deal, you need somebody at the other side of the table. This isn't a war in which you have somebody whose side is losing and you work out a deal with them.

Mr. PACKER: Yeah, that's right. I mean, in Afghanistan we're fighting networks of insurgents who apparently have leadership committees that we can't find. We're fairly sure they're in Pakistan somewhere - that's about it. So, you're absolutely right that there is no Hanoi and there is no Belgrade that we can bomb or that we can sign a peace with.

What there is is Pakistan. And the key to the Afghan insurgency is its sanctuary on the Pakistani side of the border. Now, Holbrooke can't go to Islamabad and tell Generals Kayani and Pasha - the two military leaders there -cut off your support for these guys. Because what he will be told in return is we don't support them.

It's a project of years. There is going to be no overnight epiphany on the part of Pakistan that suddenly the Taliban are no longer seen as an important part of their national security. It's a matter of a slow persuasion through repeated visits and using our - whatever influence we have with other neighbors - India, China, Russia - to get Pakistan to gradually wean itself from its dependence on extremist networks.

And that is, I think, the most formidable challenge that Richard Holbrooke has ever faced in his career.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. PACKER: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: George Packer's most recent article in the New Yorker is titled "The Last Mission: Richard Holbrooke's Plan to Avoid the Mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan."

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