Holbrooke’s final command on Afghanistan

“You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” These are said to have been the last words of US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke.[i] He didn’t say how to do it, but he left behind enough other words to make clear his view that the focus of his country’s efforts would have to shift from fighting to talking.

In a tribute to Holbrooke, Canada’s Chris Alexander, who offered extraordinary service in Afghanistan, both as Canada’s Ambassador and as Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, called his passing “a tragedy for Afghanistan.” Interestingly, Alexander then went on to say, in The Globe and Mail, that Holbrooke “had seen enough to know that reconciliation could never involve the appeasement of terrorists with little to lose, now bent on wrecking both the Afghan and the Pakistani states.”[ii]

There is little doubt that Holbrooke did not favour an appeasement strategy, indeed it’s hard to imagine that anyone might, given the World War II etymology of that term, but, intended or not, Alexander’s account of Holbrooke’s rejection of appeasement should not be taken as evidence that Holbrooke also rejected negotiations or diplomatic engagement with the Taliban and other elements of the Afghan insurgency.

Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars,[iii] portrays Holbrook as having joined Vice President Joe Biden in opposing escalation of the war through a military surge (Location 2968).[iv] While he didn’t then see the way open to high-level treaty or cease-fire talks with the top Taliban leadership, he expressed frustration with much of the background briefing that failed to acknowledge a central truth — namely that America would not produce a military victory in Afghanistan (L2963).

The recent White House review of US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan,[v] as well as President Barack Obama’s accompanying statement,[vi] once again makes clear that the defeat of the Taliban is not the objective. Instead, President Obama has defined the core objective as defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and as preventing it from threatening the US or others from that base.

Indeed, it can be credibly argued that the Taliban and their Pashtun base are central to keeping al Qaeda out of Afghanistan in the future. In the long run, only the Pashtun community can ensure that al Qaeda is not harboured in its midst.

And, according to Woodward, Holbrooke understood that keeping al Qaeda out of Afghanistan did not require that the Taliban also be kept out of Afghanistan. He agreed with Vice President Biden that “even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them” – it was a conclusion that, Holbrooke remarked, might have been “the single most important intellectual insight of the year” (L2970).

The question thus becomes not whether the Taliban return to governance in some form in some parts of Afghanistan, but how that return is to be managed so as to preserve hard won constitutional and practical gains in human rights, especially the rights of women and access to education for females. Holbrooke may not have answered that challenge directly, but he was on a promising track when he urged that much more emphasis be placed on good governance at provincial and district levels, instead of focusing only on Karzai and Kabul (L4094).

As difficult and irascible as Holbrook apparently sometimes was, by all accounts he would have continued to be a major asset in pursuit of the goal that was his final command – “you’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”



[i] “Richard Holbrooke’s last words: ‘You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan’,” The Telegraph, United Kingdom, 14 December 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/8201988/Richard-Holbrookes-last-words-Youve-got-to-stop-this-war-in-Afghanistan.html.

[ii] Christopher Alexander, “Afghanistan: A critical task Holbrooke would want us to finish …,” 15 December 2010 (Former Deputy Special Representative to the UN Secretary General in Afghanistan and formerly Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan).


[iii] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, Kindle Edition.

[iv] Instead of page numbers, these references are to Location numbers in the Kindle edition.

[v] “Overview of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review,” The White House, 16 December 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/16/overview-afghanistan-and-pakistan-annual-review,

[vi] President Barack Obama, Statement by the President on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, 16 December 2010, The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/16/statement-president-afghanistan-pakistan-annual-review.

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