March 17, 2010

Why We Are in Afghanistan

For U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, the reasons are clear—because we’re under threat

By Helene Ragovin

Afghanistan, insists Richard C. Holbrooke, is not Vietnam.

“The fundamental difference is that in Afghanistan, the situation poses a direct threat to our homeland. That was not true in Vietnam,” says Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a veteran diplomat and foreign policy expert whose resume dates back to the Kennedy administration. In fact, he says his current posting has brought his career “full circle”: the lessons of Vietnam have become relevant again in light of the war in Afghanistan.

“This is not a military war of positions,” Richard Holbrooke says of the conflict in Afghanistan. “It’s a political struggle.” Photo: Alonso Nichols

“We failed in Vietnam, but we must understand why we failed, and what parts of the Vietnam experience are relevant to Afghanistan and what are not,” Holbrooke said during a talk at Tufts University on March 4.

“The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese posed no direct threat to the homeland of the United States,” he stressed. “Afghanistan is different on the core reason—we’re there because of what happened on September 11, 2001.

“The people we are fighting, the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies, are people who want to destroy America … Let no one in this room doubt that if al-Qaeda had had nuclear weapons on 9/11, they would have used them in New York and Washington,” Holbrooke said.

And, Holbrooke continued, the way for the U.S. to succeed in Afghanistan will be by bolstering a functioning Afghan government that can provide services and economic stability to its people.

Holbrooke, H97, delivered his remarks as he received the Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award from the Institute for Global Leadership. The award is named for Tufts’ 10th president, who stressed the role of Tufts students, faculty and alumni as global citizens. In keeping with Mayer’s legacy, Holbrooke began his lecture with an appeal to Tufts students to consider a career of public service.

“I don’t necessarily mean going to Washington,” Holbrooke said. “There are many ways you can serve. There are a tremendous number of things you can do. I believe every generation should work on its personal lives, family lives, business lives, but also give something back to the rest of the world.”

Holbrooke was appointed special representative, with responsibility for carrying out U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, early in the Obama presidency. He has served every Democratic president from the time he joined the Foreign Service in 1962. During the Clinton administration, he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; assistant secretary of state; special envoy to Bosnia and Kosovo; special envoy to Cyprus and U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Notably, he was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia. Now, as he contends with conflict in another tense and highly volatile part of the world, Holbrooke spoke forcefully in support of the American presence in Afghanistan, and stressed that political efforts are as vital as any military campaign.

“I do want to emphasize something that is not covered much in the press,” Holbrooke said. “Alongside our soldiers are civilians that my office has recruited, going in with the military, at great personal risk, to help bring good governance, agriculture, communications, the rule of law, with the troops.

“We cannot win this kind of war simply with military battles. This is not a military war of positions. It’s a political struggle. We will succeed or fail depending on the ability of the Afghan government to deliver services to the people, and for the people to decide that they will take risks to support the government.”

That task, Holbrooke acknowledged, is daunting: the country is hampered by extreme poverty—even Haiti, before the recent earthquake, enjoyed a higher standard of living than Afghanistan—corruption and illiteracy, among other problems. Last summer’s highly disputed national election was riddled with irregularities.

“The democratic imperative in Afghanistan is very difficult,” he said. “Now, having gotten through the election, we have to work with the Afghan government to deliver those services, and that isn’t going to be easy.”

In Pakistan, the task of going after the Taliban and al-Qaeda—which, Holbrooke said, have “nested” in the mountainous territory of western Pakistan—is also difficult, and cannot be attempted, for many reasons, by U.S. troops.

“So, we need to give Pakistan tremendous support,” he said. “That is a very controversial issue. Many people don’t want to give money to Pakistan. But from my point of view, this is an easy decision. Pakistan’s stability and its economic progress are essential for stability in the area, and we need to help them.”

Holbrooke compared the situation to President Truman’s decision in 1947, during the Cold War, to provide aid to Greece and Turkey in order to curtail Soviet influence—the foundation of what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine. “I think the analogy fits. People thought the Turks and the Greeks were corrupt, right-wing governments, but history records that as a visionary act,” Holbrooke said.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at

Article Tools

emailE-mail printPrint