The Inside Story of How the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan

Vali Nasr, senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke when he was heading the State Department’s efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, talks about how the White House hosed them:

The night before Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who in June 2009 was installed as the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was to release the report outlining what he needed to fight the war, Holbrooke gathered his team in his office. We asked him what he thought McChrystal would request. He said, “Watch! The military will give the president three choices. There will be a ‘high-risk’ option” — Holbrooke held his hand high in the air — “that is what they always call it, which will call for maybe very few troops. Low troops, high risk. Then there will be a ‘low-risk’ option” — Holbrooke lowered his hand — “which will ask for double the number they are actually looking for. In the middle will be what they want,” which was between 30,000 and 40,000 more troops. And that is exactly what happened.

It’s an interesting read, if somewhat depressing; Holbrooke (and Clinton) struggle to try to negotiate our way out of the war, but the Pentagon offers more politically tempting solutions, and it quickly turns into White House vs. Holbrooke, with our foreign policy caught in the crossfire.

A cute detail:

But hunting terrorists was unpopular in Pakistan, and drone strikes in particular angered Pakistanis. In public the authorities denied making any deal with the United States, but it was obvious to citizens that the drones flew with the authorities’ knowledge and even cooperation. The anger would only get worse as the number of drone attacks grew. But drones were a deeply classified topic in the U.S. government. You could not talk about them in public, much less discuss whom they were hitting and with what results. Embassy staffers took to calling drones “Voldemorts,” after the villain in the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort: “he who must not be named.”

Although! You should of course take it with a grain of salt; in Washington battles lost in the Oval Office are often continued in the media.