Thursday, January 07, 2010

Holbrooke: "It's Complicated."


Richard Holbrooke spoke at Brookings this afternoon on the topic of the Obama administration's challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He gave some fairly standard answers to some fairly standard questions; when asked how the U.S. deals with the winner of a clearly fraudulent election, Holbrooke doggedly insisted that Hamid Karzai was the legitimately elected president of Afghanistan and that the U.S. would deal with him on that basis--a pragmatic statement if not one that will endear him to fans of transparency and the rule of law.

A few other notes follow.

On why the U.S. is in Afghanistan: During the Obama administration's review of AfPak policy, the conclusion was that "basic national security interests were at stake in these countries," an attitude Holbrooke says was confirmed during subsequent visits to everyone he could name, including the UAE, Russia, Afghanistan's neighbors and Egypt, among others.

On the new day at USAID: With a new administrator finally in place, USAID can start to get more serious work done, although Holbrooke notes that the agency is badly depleted with (for example) "just four engineers [of its own] left in the water area." Contractors handle the rest, something Holbrooke and Secretary Clinton seem determined to change. Look out, AED, DAI, JAA, et al!

On earthquake relief in Pakistan, 2005: "This is what a great nation does for a country that is under so much pressure." Again, Holbrooke is being pragmatic and in this case, excessively modest about what the U.S. hoped to gain from throwing "hundreds of millions" in aid at Pakistan's quake-stricken hinterland.

Holbrooke also noted that Georgia is currently training a battalion in Tbilisi that, when deployed, will make Georgia the most numerous per-capita donor of troops to the Afghan mission until the new U.S. deployments are complete. Again, Holbrooke insists there is no quid pro quo here--implying that the Georgians are doing this out of the goodness of their collective heart--but anyone familiar with Georgian-Russian relations knows that Georgia is creating a chit to be cashed in later if Moscow comes knocking.

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