Holbrooke On Afghan Conflict, Planned Drawdown

Richard Holbrooke, the United States' Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is in Madrid, Spain, meeting with his counterparts from 30 other nations. Robert Siegel speaks with Ambassador Holbrooke about the conference and how the latest offensive in Marjah may affect the planned drawdown date next summer.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He's at a conference in Madrid with special representatives for the region from 31 other countries, and they're discussing diplomatic and assistance programs for the Afghans. Ambassador Holbrooke, welcome to the program.

Ambassador RICHARD HOLBROOKE (U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan): It's great to be back with you.

SIEGEL: And before hearing about Madrid, a question about today's news, the firings of the Afghan intelligence chief and the interior minister. Do you share President Karzai's judgment that they're responsible for failing to prevent the bombing of the peace jirga in Kabul?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Are you asking me if I share it?

SIEGEL: Yes.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I'm not going to reach any personal judgment on that kind of thing. It's an internal matter. Ministers come and go from governments. Both interior minister Atmar and intelligence chief Saleh are people I've worked with closely, as have many of my colleagues in the U.S. government. But people come and go. Nobody is indispensible. And we look forward to working with their successors.

SIEGEL: Just before leaving this point, though, is it your sense that the Afghan government has some bench strength there? People as good as those whove been let go, who can do the job?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: They have plenty of bench strength.

SIEGEL: Well, then we'll go on to other matters. The conference has featured several pledges of assistance to Afghanistan. What are you hearing from other special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan? Do they look at the situation in Afghanistan and feel encouraged about the prospects of their assistance?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: In regard to Afghanistan, I was very struck by the degree of commitment, the increasing number of internationals that are supporting the American policy and with specific reference to the seven members of the organization of Islamic nations that are here, including such powerhouses as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

These countries all expressed a positive view towards the events in Afghanistan and particularly the successful outcome of the peace jirga, which finished two days ago. None of them were concerned about the departure of the two ministers. They felt that was the kind of thing that happens.

SIEGEL: You have said that while a political settlement in Afghanistan may include some Taliban, there are red lines. You brought a settlement to Bosnia and in doing so, you negotiated with people who went on to be charged with war crimes and it ended the war. Who in the Afghan conflict falls outside the red lines today, who might be inside the red lines?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Anyone associated with al-Qaida is outside the pale. They must disassociate and repudiate al-Qaida.

SIEGEL: But if those people were to come in from the cold and say, we no longer ally ourselves with al-Qaida, do you think it's appropriate to speak about who has got blood on their hands or to say, you've got to make peace to end a war, you got to talk with the people on the other side?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, President Clinton, when I was working for him on Bosnia, used to quote his great friend Yitzhak Rabin, late prime minister of Israel, as saying, you don't negotiate war with your friends, you negotiate with the people on the other side. So there's a fundamental truth there. Having said that, there is no negotiation with al-Qaida possible, nor with anyone who is part of their support network or continues to support them.

SIEGEL: We've reported here on the offensive in Helmand province, most recently in Marjah, where it seems that after ousting the Taliban, the Marines were unable to really suppress Taliban attacks. They didn't install a very effective government and the local population does not appear to be assured of their security. Are there lessons there? If so, what are the lessons of what's happened in Marjah over the past several weeks?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, I'm operating from weakness here, Robert, because Ive yet to get to Marjah, unfortunately, in my trips. I was planning a trip, but I had to postpone it for logistical reasons. So what I know is secondhand and I tend not to feel comfortable with that judgment.

But let me say that Marjah is clearly a very difficult operation, yet it is something we must succeed in now. The test of Marjah is not the clear phase, which was successfully undertaken by the U.S. troops. It is not the hold phase. It is the build and transfer to the Afghan phase. And that has been running a little bit slower than had been anticipated, as General McChrystal has said.

SIEGEL: So much slower that does it put any doubt into that July 2011 deadline for beginning the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: The decisions of next year will be made after an intense policy review in December. That policy review will consist of an overview of all issues and it won't be dependent simply on a single event like Marjah.

SIEGEL: But you're saying it remains to be a subject of study as to whether indeed the drawdown starts in July of 2011.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: No, the president has been very clear on that. He said troops will start to be withdrawn on a careful, responsible basis in July 2011. He has not specified the pace or the size or the scope, nor does he intend to do that before he has had a chance to see how the summer offensive goes, how the counterinsurgency strategy goes, how the government does in terms of its own efforts and training. That is not going to be done until starting in December.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Holbrooke, thank you very much for talking with us.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Oh, it's my pleasure, Robert. Good to be with you again.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking to us from the conference that he's having with his counterparts from more than 30 other countries, a conference in Madrid.

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