Holbrooke Gets All Flippant and Cute

Posted: July 28, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

I was baffled by the cavalier attitude displayed yesterday by Richard Holbrooke about violence in Afghanistan. Sounding positively Dick-Cheney-ish, Dick Holbrooke waved away concerns about the potential of widespread violence to damage the legitimacy of the upcoming elections. Here he is during an NPR interview, emphasis mine:

Q: Wouldn’t the people, though, who can’t vote think maybe it wasn’t fair because their voices can’t be heard?

HOLBROOKE: Does that invalidate the election? If that’s true, the 2004 election in the United States should be questioned. Because a lot of the voters in Ohio stood in lines and the polls closed and they were left out there not voting. And that was in the world’s greatest and oldest democracy.

Elections are rarely perfect. This election, in unprecedented wartime conditions, is certainly not going to be without its rough spots. It’s the integrity of the voting process in the middle of a brutal war. How many countries would have had the courage to hold an election under these circumstances? But Afghanistan is, and they should be given credit for it.

Yes, Dick, obviously those are analogous situations. We all remember the Taliban planting IEDs in Cleveland and the women immolating themselves in despair brought on by widespread rape by government officials in Columbus. The press was full of reports of Blackwater guards brandishing guns at passers-by. Remember when John Edwards almost got assassinated? I totally get your point!

Or not:

Hundreds of polling stations could be closed in Afghanistan’s most violent regions, raising concerns that many ethnic Pashtuns will be unable to vote in next month’s presidential elections. That could undermine the legitimacy of the election, cause turmoil and possibly deprive President Hamid Karzai of a first-round victory.

Compare Holbrooke’s statement with this little gem from the other Dick (Cheney), coincidentally from 2004:

“Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador. We had hal[sic] guerrilla insurgency [that] controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead, and we held free elections. I was there as an observer on behalf of the Congress. The human drive for freedom, the determination of these people to vote, was unbelievable. The terrorists would come in and shoot up polling places; as soon as they left, the voters would come back and get in line and would not be denied the right to vote.”

Coincidence? Not on your life.

The timing of Holbrooke’s comments defending the legitimacy of the election, coming before the election takes place, exposes the game plan for the weeks ahead. Holbrooke is seeking to preempt questions about election legitimacy before the election takes place because the administration plans to defend the legitimacy of the election no matter what. That’s because this is what occupiers do–what Edward Herman calls “ratification-of-conquest.”  The Obama administration needs to be able to point to a “legitimate” election so they can translate that legitimacy into a perception of legitimacy for their entire Afghanistan policy.

For an example of how this works, see Dick Cheney, January 2006:

And I think we’ve had a lot of good news out of Iraq over the course of the last year. It’s hard sometimes to see through that, given the continued level of violence, obviously.

But when you look at the fact that they’ve made every political deadline that’s been set: January elections, wrote a constitution in the summer, ratified it in October, national elections in December. It’s been a — I think a remarkable success story so far.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I think the president has made the point repeatedly out there that the only way we lose is if we pack is it in and go home. And we’re clearly not going to do that.

Or Dick Cheney, Feb. 23, 2007:

When asked whether the Bush administration had a failed strategy in Iraq, Cheney pushed back hard, insisting there had been significant progress.

“A failed strategy? Let’s see. We didn’t fail when we got rid of Saddam,” Cheney said. “We didn’t fail when we held elections. We didn’t fail when we got a constitution written. Those are all success stories.”

But, most infamously, see Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, May/June, 2005, emphasis mine:

On CNN’s ”Larry King Live” on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney said of the violence in Iraq, ”I think they’re in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.”

This is after May became the deadliest month for US forces since the January elections, with 76 US military casualties.

At a press conference on Tuesday, President Bush was asked about the US casualties and the deaths of 760 Iraqis since the new Iraqi government was named April 28. A reporter asked Bush, ”Do you think that the insurgency is gaining strength and becoming more lethal?”

Bush responded, ”I think the Iraqi people dealt the insurgents a serious blow when they, when we had the elections.”

For the record, this month is already the deadliest month of the Afghanistan war so far.

Purple fingers, anyone?

  1. […] Holbrooke Gets All Flippant and Cute posted on July 29th, 2009 at Return Good for Evil […]

  2. Dear DC,‎

    I agree that such untruths spoken by ‘leaders’ are so very deeply ‘deliberate and ugly’ that they appear ‘flippant ‎and cute.’‎

    Our Journey to Smile posted and video-ed “A tsunami of lies is now a condoned custom in Afghanistan and ‎the world”, thoughts arising from the pre-Afghan election hype.‎

    I should add that Holbrooke is mild compared to others, including the British Brig Radford saying “I am ‎absolutely certain that the operation ( Helmand offensive )has been a success.” ‎

    Hakim in Afg

    • dcrowe says:

      Hakim: I will definitely check out your video. Holbrooke is mild, but that mildness can be disarming–meanwhile, he’s employing the same kind of arguments used by Dick Cheney to deflect legitimate criticisms because he’s not interested in the truth. Instead, he’s interested in perceptions of legitimacy.

  3. Sporkmaster says:

    But I still think that we are needed there. Another reason is this;

    Child recruits freed from Taliban’s grasp

    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Security forces rescued several children forcibly recruited by the Taliban, purportedly to be used as fighters or suicide bombers, and there could be hundreds more of them, officials said Tuesday.

    The claim came as a suicide car bomber rammed his vehicle into a checkpoint in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region, causing an explosion that killed two police officers and wounded five other security officials, authorities said.


    What is the non-violent counter to this and I am really asking and not trying to be scarsastic.

    • dcrowe says:

      Hey Sporkmaster:

      I’m going to have to disagree with you pretty strongly here. But before I do that, I want to say that I know that your concern for these kids is genuine, and that is true for a lot of folks who back a military presence in Afghanistan. What I’m about to say is not intended to say otherwise.

      Our strategy in Afghanistan favors putting child rapists on the streets to counter the Taliban.

      WASHINGTON, Jul 29 (IPS) – The strategy of the major U.S. and British military offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand province aimed at wresting it from the Taliban is based on bringing back Afghan army and police to maintain permanent control of the population, so the foreign forces can move on to another insurgent stronghold.

      But that strategy poses an acute problem: The police in the province, who are linked to the local warlord, have committed systematic abuses against the population, including the abduction and rape of pre-teen boys, according to village elders who met with British officers.

      Anger over those police abuses runs so high that the elders in Babaji just north of Laskgar Gah warned the British that they would support the Taliban to get rid of them if the national police were allowed to return to the area, according to a Jul. 12 report by Reuters correspondent Peter Graff.

      The counterinsurgency plan we’ve chosen is very much an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” strategy. In pursuit of it, we’ve returned warlords to power, shored up a regime filled to the brim with drug lords and women abusers, and now, according to this article, we’re utilizing people who’ve been run out of town on a rail because they’re raping teen boys because they fit the only criteria that matters to the people calling the shots: they’re enemies of the Taliban.

      You’re right to feel a desire to help. But moral outrage at the behavior of the Taliban is no excuse to back the garbage that’s passing for our “counterinsurgency” strategy in Afghanistan. Reports from the UK show that the British, our main ally, are losing their tolerance for our meandering and morally bankrupt “strategy” in Afghanistan. Pretty soon, we’re going to be standing alone in that country, with our only real allies being the women-abusing, prisoner-massacring, drug-dealing thugs we’re propping up in the name of “defeating the Taliban.”

      Sorry for my inability to restrain my rage. I just read this article and I’m seeing red.

      As for the nonviolent counter: There’s not a magic wand nonviolent answer to this that has the result of some people not getting hurt, but that’s in large part because we’ve been put in this situation by people who refused to listen to the nonviolent in the first place. It’s kind of like asking people who tell you not to drink and drive what they’re solution is now that you’ve killed someone while driving drunk.

      However, the first thing we should do, bare minimum, is show some integrity and refuse to back warlords and rapists who happen to dislike the Taliban.

      The second thing we should do is to pull our military forces back as quickly as possible to reduce the level of military conflict in the lives of Afghans. As the story about the cops shows, the kids are already in danger with us there, with a “bonus” of being surrounded by war.

      Third, start training Afghan trainers in civilian-based defense against Taliban encroachment (see here and here).

      Those are strategic changes…were you referring to the specific tactical responses?

      • Sporkmaster says:

        Sorry about the late reply this is taking longer then I thought it would.

        The main issues I have been bring up are not against the problems now, but how to deal with them. Once again that article brought up many issues that must be addressed. But one of the main problems is that that the people that are doing this live there. This is not a unit or contractor that we can just simply remove and the problem with go away. So that will still leave us with these wrongs and abuses for Afghanistan, with out a immediate answer.

        The reason why there is not too much objection to that view(Enemy of my enemy) is that it has been a accepted in the play book of war for many years. I think this quote puts it best.

        If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.
        ~ in a speech after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, June 1941


        But as far as dealing with the risks who gets into the police and army ranks, the main problem is tribalism. Because of it people that are of different groups might and can use that as a motive for the abuses that you listed in your post. So by that logic the only immediate way to fix that is only people from their own group be used recruits for police and army forces for those areas. But that approach is just asking for failure because it will promote tribalism even further.

        I understand that not wanting to have any association with these people and their actions. But in order to counter that those is to put boots on the ground that can be held accounted for their actions. Also the more boots on the ground, we can deal with any issues right there rather then when we hear about them 3rd hand. Is there going to be corruption in this? You bet there is, but with this oversight cases like the one in early 2001 might not have happened if we had people that could react to it.

        But as far as how we should be dealing with Afghanistan it is somewhat hard to read objectively because I do not really know what people are expecting to happen to improve the situation. Most of the time I come off of reading this blog with one question. “How is that going to work?” I can understand your frustration about things staying the same with the violence but without a clear path it just feels like walking blindfolded in a mine field.

        I know there is no magic cure and would be folly to expect it on a large scale. So a idea would be working from the bottom up. Some starting points would be finding out who are the major aid groups there and seeing about what they need to continue working. The next step would be a follow up program on how and where the aid is used. Because it is one thing to donate to a charity, but another to see that directly affect those involved. I got to see it for my self and it is the greatest feeling in the world. It is a way that people can get personally connected to this place. Then once you have that set up it could possible open up people to the idea of going there and helping directly rather then by proxy. I understand that this is very small in the larger scope, but if there is not chance to do anything about it directly then apathy sets in and nothing will have change. (Granted one major obstacle that I do not know how to address is the safely of those that go to help, but I am sure that could be a topic in your group meeting in the next few months.)

        One thing that would help is if we could make a data base of who what involved with what and a way to blacklist those that are on the database. The hard part will be keeping that list updated and there to those in the field were electronics are scarce or not a option.

        Well with pulling back our forces, I would suggest looking at how it is doing in Iraq and do it on a smaller level because even with our forces gone, there is nothing to promise that the violence will rise or fall.

        About the third my main doubts to that is the resistance to any retaliatory mesures that these actions may face. But I think that would require a full post to go into.

        Also just because I disagree with you a lot doe not mean I do not look forward to your thoughts. It is defiantly a breath of fresh air when compared to other conversations I have had in the past on this subject. But it just keeps coming back to the how. Also I know I will not be able to attend but depending if this was even possible I would love to listen in on the conversation at the event in November. One idea was doing a webcam but that is probably asking for a lot. Anyways how it goes well with that and talk to you later.

  4. dcrowe says:


    I also look forward to your thoughts–these conversations are one of the best parts of writing this blog.

    About the November training–we will definitely have others around the state, but I know the 20 hours is a lot to commit, especially when you have a lot of obligations. I will discuss with the group that comes together whether we can get some video of the event. That will be up to the group, I think, because there might be some sensitivity to having a camera rolling. The training uses a method called “popular education,” which means we trainers don’t lecture and instead help others pull from their own experience and generalize their own knowledge of nonviolence. So, it relies on people sharing a lot of their own experiences, and some folks clam up around a camera. But, we do need video and photos for promotional material if nothing else, so I will put it forward for the training group to consider and let you know what they think.

    Can I get you to clarify something? When you say, “what’s the nonviolent counter to this?” are you asking:

    a) How do you stop the recruitment of the children in the first place? or
    b) What do you do once they’re recruited to rescue them? or
    c) Both, or
    d) none of the above?

    Another clarification needed to help me answer your questions: who are we assuming would implement the nonviolent counter, for the sake of argument?

    a) One way the Pakistani’s could disrupt the recruitment of Pashtun children on the basis of this distorted Islamic ideology is to push the alternative vision of Islam presented by folks like Abdul Ghaffir Khan (one of Gandhi’s allies), who was himself a Pashtun. This would help inoculate the children who’ve been recruited against the brainwashing, and would help parents resist the offer of money. Responding with violence, or creating a violent atmosphere through a large military operation like the one taking/that took place in Swat, however, would make the Pakistani government a not-credible messenger. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

    b) Find a way to put the Taliban in a position where they can’t get what they want by using the child suicide bombers. Terror tactics like this are used to obtain a political result, so make their use politically toxic. Publicize it to the rafters any time one is used, loudly and aggressively condemning it and make sure no street corner lacks paper on it. Use it to trigger a social boycott of the whole Taliban movement. Use it as an excuse to launch a “not your bomber” campaign among Pashtun youth. Use it to hurt their image as the defenders of Islam, etc.

    The thing that makes the whole apparatus work is the financial incentive. If the funds being used to purchase the children are paid in cash, use lightly irradiated bills to help track the funding apparatus of the Taliban and shut down their banks and financial institutions, just like we do with mobsters in the U.S. Basically make the incentive into a strategic liability, and you’ve killed it.

    There’s an important point here, though, that often goes unremarked, and it’s why I asked who we’re assuming will implement the counter: nothing the U.S. does in Afghanistan to prop up democracy will matter unless the Afghans themselves as a society make the decision to do so themselves. I think we have a bit of a God complex in the United States when it comes to the rest of the world that’s rooted in the idea we have about ourselves and our participation in WWII–that somehow we can make the world free. That’s not how it happened when we founded our own nation. We can talk about the safety of women and children all day long and kill as many “bad guys” as we like, but at the end of the day the intangible things we’re fighting for aren’t simply located in the Taliban; they’re widespread aspects of Afghan culture that offend us. So, we put ourselves in the position of fighting for women’s rights, children’s safety, etc., but with allies who themselves also represent the things we claim to be fighting against. And, on top of that, war causes regressive social changes, not progressive ones, and that means that every bullet we fire is a setback for democratic ideals. To illustrate the point, the “strongest” national institution in Afghanistan is now the Afghan National Army, thanks to our funding/training. So you have a weak central civilian government and a strong military–that seems like a recipe for a future junta to me.

    We’re not Mao; we don’t believe “power flows from the barrel of the gun.” We believe power flows from consent, and that’s a fundamentally nonviolent idea. Like Malalai Joya, a female MP in Afghanistan says, “No nation can donate liberation to another nation,” Ms Joya said, to loud applause from the audience. “Only nations which liberate themselves can be free.” By the way, she wants the U.S. out.

    • dcrowe says:

      Just to shore up my answer to the “nonviolent counter,” I’d point out that the rationale of “stopping recruitment before it happens” as the real way of responding to something like this is the same kind of rationale that the military uses re: counterinsurgency. From today’s washingtonpost:

      “McChrystal understands that you don’t stop IEDs [improvised explosive devices] by putting your soldiers in MRAPs,” heavily armored trucks designed to withstand blasts, said Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington who served on the assessment team. “You stop them by convincing the population not to plant them in the first place, and that requires getting out of trucks and interacting with people.”

    • dcrowe says:

      Also, I failed to note that you have some pretty good ideas in your post (re: the database, pulling back troops based on lessons learned, etc.) Sorry, posting when I should be focusing on other things hehe

  5. Dear Sporkmaster,

    There’s too much inhumanity going all around the world and in Afghanistan to respond sufficiently to the important issues raised here.

    I’m afraid that Man has become so uncreative in the global moral vacuum that Violence is the predominant practical response to all problems, especially with issues of Money and Power, and sadly even with ‘spiritual’ issues of ‘faith and love etc’.

    If your child/children, with the freedom of expression etc which you have and uphold, one day became rather violent, angry, trigger-happy and all, how would you help him/them?

    Grieving daily in Afghanistan,

    • sporkmaster says:

      We cannot stop these things, just as we cannot stop death. The only thing that we can do is hold off and contain the effects of these thing when we can. Stay safe over there.

  6. […] analogy in turn reminds me of a comment I made in an exchange with one of my frequent debate partners: There’s not a magic wand […]

  7. […] analogy in turn reminds me of a comment I made in an exchange with one of my frequent debate partners: There’s not a magic wand […]

  8. […] analogy in turn reminds me of a comment I made in an exchange with one of my frequent debate partners: There’s not a magic wand […]

  9. […] Me, on July 28: The timing of Holbrooke’s comments defending the legitimacy of the election, coming before the election takes place, exposes the game plan for the weeks ahead. Holbrooke is seeking to preempt questions about election legitimacy before the election takes place because the administration plans to defend the legitimacy of the election no matter what. That’s because this is what occupiers do–what Edward Herman calls “ratification-of-conquest.”  The Obama administration needs to be able to point to a “legitimate” election so they can translate that legitimacy into a perception of legitimacy for their entire Afghanistan policy. […]

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