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Richard Holbrooke on the Afghan Elections and Prospects for U.S.- Afghan Relations

Aired November 6, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the United Nations warns Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he cannot rely on international support forever. As the U.S. considers its next move in the war, America's point- man on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, is our special guest.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The United Nations special representative in Kabul is warning President Hamid Karzai that he may have won the election, but he cannot count on international support, nor take it for granted. His comments came the same day that the U.N. began withdrawing hundreds of its staff from Afghanistan because of a lack of security there after an attack on a U.N. guesthouse last week.

And across the Afghan border, the Pakistan army is advancing into the Taliban's stronghold of South Waziristan after a series of deadly bomb attacks across the country.

All of this presents a new challenge for the United States, as President Barack Obama continues to ponder his strategy going forward.

Richard Holbrooke, special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, joins me now from Washington.

And welcome to this program, Mr. Holbrooke.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador, this is the first interview you're giving since the election of Hamid Karzai. Do you -- does the United States administration still consider Afghanistan a war of necessity?

HOLBROOKE: Well, the president's remarks spoke for themselves on that. Afghanistan is extraordinarily important to our national security. It is the country from which 9/11 was launched. And it and its neighbor, the western areas of Pakistan, remain a clear and present danger to everyone, not only in the United States, but in Western Europe, in Pakistan itself, in India, and elsewhere throughout the region.

AMANPOUR: And, you know, there's been a lot of complaints, breast- beating, gnashing of teeth about the failures and the genuine challenges in Afghanistan, but there are also a lot of successes, whether it's health, whether it's in education, telecommunications, microfinance, road structures, et cetera. Is the United States still committed to defending those successes?

HOLBROOKE: More than defending, Christiane, we're going to increase our request to Congress in every one of those fields, plus one or two you didn't mention, most notably, agriculture. It's an agricultural country. The last seven years, the United States sent more money eradicating poppy crops than building up agriculture.

And, you know, agriculture, they were an agricultural exporting country until the Soviet invasion. So we're going to help with crop substitution for pomegranates and almonds and pistachios. This is very big stuff. We are sending -- we had only about 10 agricultural workers in Afghanistan earlier this year. We're going to have over 70, close to 100, actually, throughout the country soon. We're working with other countries.

So the answer to your question is, the commitment to Afghanistan, as President Obama has made clear, remains undiminished.

AMANPOUR: Is President Obama -- when is he going to make his strategy decision? And will there be a bump-up in U.S. troops there?

HOLBROOKE: Well, I can't give you an exact timetable, but I can tell you this. We remain committed to the core objectives of defeating and dismantling Al Qaida, of helping strengthen civilian democratic rule in Pakistan, of strengthening the Afghan people's government and its security forces.

But within that, Christiane, we have engaged in an intense review to make sure that we have the appropriate mix of resources, civilian and military. The press is focused on the military, but in every discussion, we have been talking about the increase in American civilian personnel, the increase in American efforts.

And Hillary Clinton just returned from an incredible trip to Pakistan, where she articulated what she called the turning of the page in Pakistan.


And this was a very important trip in which we committed ourselves to much greater support of Pakistan's democratic institutions and the economy in Pakistan, with particular attention to energy.

AMANPOUR: All right. Let's get back to Afghanistan for a moment. We'll talk about Pakistan, as well. But now that the election is over in Afghanistan, does the United States believe it has a credible partner in President Hamid Karzai?

HOLBROOKE: President Karzai is the elected and legitimate president of the country, and we look forward to working with him on that basis. As I told him last time I saw him during the election counting period, we would respect the results of the election, and the results of the election were in accordance with Afghan laws, its constitution, its procedures. He is legitimately elected president.

Our ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has been in very close and constant touch with him. President Obama talked publicly about this issue already. And, yes, we're looking forward to working with President Karzai and his government going forward.

AMANPOUR: Because as you know -- because as you know, many people are calling the election process a farce, not just the whole run-up to it, but just even how the denouement, because after calling for a run-off, then the challenger pulled out and the election was handed to President Karzai. Abdullah Abdullah has said just handing it to him was illegal. Are you categoric that he is the credible, legitimate leader of Afghanistan?

HOLBROOKE: I have great respect for Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and I think his action in deciding not to contest the second round was a very positive sign of reality. He knew what the outcome would be. The weather was closing in. It would have been a very expensive process. And as he said, he didn't like what had happened, but he was going along with it.

As for the government, they are the legitimately chosen government of Afghanistan on the basis of procedures and accordance with Afghanistan law. As President Obama said, it was messy. And you covered the messy side of it.

But I want to stress something else. In the end, the process did work, although it was messy. And the reason I say that is that the -- that the key moment came about three weeks ago when the issue arose as to whether the -- there would be a run-off declared or not. And this had always been an issue of great contention in Afghanistan.

And when the Election Complaints Commission said nobody got 50 percent, and the Independent Election Commission reaffirmed that, that was the decisive moment. So I stress: Maybe it wasn't clean. It certainly wasn't, as President Obama said.

AMANPOUR: Were you...

HOLBROOKE: But the -- the outcome -- the outcome was according to the procedures of the country, and it was the best outcome that could have occurred in that framework.

AMANPOUR: Well, you talk about clean. Obviously, a major issue is corruption. What do you think, want (ph), will press President Karzai to do for good governance, for transparency, a lack of corruption? Are there benchmarks? And what are you going to insist on?

HOLBROOKE: There are definitely benchmarks, and those have been negotiated internally in the U.S. government, discussed with the Congress, made public. And those are a matter of public record. I don't have them in front of me, but they're easily available. In terms...

AMANPOUR: But what does he need to do, fire officials, fire ministers, create a commission? What does he need to do, do you think?

HOLBROOKE: I'm not going to sit here and dictate to the government of Afghanistan what they need to do. But as President Obama said two days ago, we're looking for deeds, not words. We have international -- American and international troops risking their lives in Afghanistan, and we have a legitimate right to ask for better governance.

AMANPOUR: Do you think he can do it?

HOLBROOKE: President Obama said that. President Obama said that, Christiane. And President Karzai himself, in his speeches to the nation the last two or three days, has repeatedly referred to corruption.

I would quote -- he said -- and I'm quoting Karzai now -- "Our future government will undergo some major changes. Afghanistan has been seriously discredited by administrative corruption. We will try to remove this stigma."

AMANPOUR: But he said it over and again -- he said it over and again.


AMANPOUR: Can he do it?

HOLBROOKE: That is to be determined. But the president of the United States has made absolutely clear that these are critical issues. Ambassador Eikenberry and his wonderful team in that embassy are charged with that primary responsibility. The rest of us -- I talked to President Karzai personally yesterday on the phone, and we talked about -- I said I was looking forward to seeing him soon at the inauguration.


And we will continue those discussions in private. It is a major issue of concern, but I'm not going to lay out for you a detailed roadmap. Afghanistan is a sovereign country, and it will have to make its own decisions, but those decisions will affect the rest of us.

AMANPOUR: All right. Let -- let me ask you this, then. You haven't been to Afghanistan since the first election back in August. You left on August 21st, and you haven't been back. Also, there are many, many reports -- and President Karzai will tell anyone who listens -- that he doesn't have a great relationship with you and that there are frustrations because this administration from the very beginning has made it clear, even publicly, that they would have rather had an alternative to President Karzai.

How are you going to go forward with somebody who, frankly, seems to have been weakened by the very U.S. administration who wants to see the government propped up?

HOLBROOKE: Well, Christiane, there are several things you said that I must take issue with. First of all, he may -- you may say he'll tell anyone who he talks to, but he's never said any of those things in public. And he and I have a cordial and...


AMANPOUR: They've got into the public, though.


AMANPOUR: They're in the public domain, though. And the real question is...

HOLBROOKE: Christiane, Christiane, let me answer your question. He did not say in public the things you just ascribed to him. And he and I have a cordial, correct and respectful relationship.

There was a substantial misreporting, not on CNN, but on some of the other media, about a meeting I had with President Karzai the day after the election. I had two meetings in three days. I go regularly to Afghanistan. And the only reason I haven't been back since -- since August is I normally go every two or three months. I'll be going there less than three months later. We have a great embassy. They do the work.

But on this specific issue of the recent months, I have been in Washington -- except for going to Pakistan with Secretary Clinton -- I've been in Washington because this is where my job is. And we have been in the most intense, intense policy review, as I said a moment ago, that I've ever been engaged in, and I've been asked to produce many of the papers for it and participate in the meetings.

Look, as President Karzai and I discussed yesterday in a very friendly phone call, I look forward to coming back at the inauguration and seeing him again and moving forward.

AMANPOUR: We'll continue this conversation right after a break. Does President Karzai have a partner in the United States? And we will also plumb Mr. Holbrooke's knowledge on Bosnia, where he was special envoy during the '90s. We'll ask him about the war crimes trial of the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, which risks turning into yet another fiasco for the war crimes tribunal.



HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: Is the United States a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Is the West a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Have we received the commitments that we were given? Have we been treated like a partner?


AMANPOUR: That was President Hamid Karzai speaking to Fareed Zakaria a couple of weeks ago, and Richard Holbrooke, special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, joins me again.

So, Mr. Holbrooke, does Hamid Karzai, who has been weakened, who is now being told that he can't count on international support forever, does he have a partner in the West, when you consider so many of the promises that were made back in 2001 simply have not been fulfilled?

HOLBROOKE: I'm not sure I -- I quite follow the question. We have international troops...

AMANPOUR: But the question is, the U.S. is constantly saying it needs a credible partner in Afghanistan. And President Karzai's question is, do we, the Afghan people, have a credible partner in the United States? Are you going to stay the course? Are you going to fulfill the promises that you made?


HOLBROOKE: I think we're getting caught in some kind of semantic whirlpool here. The United States and our allies have over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, 68,000 Americans. We have spent billions of dollars each year helping the Afghan people. We are also working in Pakistan for the same goals.

The Afghan people in every public opinion poll have shown that they appreciate this very much. We've just talked in the last segment about all the projects we do. So this is -- this question doesn't -- is a question without meaning to me. Why are we -- this administration has increased its support of Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: With due respect -- with due respect, Mr. Holbrooke, you're absolutely right. The Afghan people do support the U.S. help, but the -- the popularity of the United States has plunged by half over the last four years, from way in the 80s to now way lower in the 40s, and that's because, many of the people say, in fact, all the promises that were made have not been fulfilled, in addition to a lot of the civilian casualties.

But I guess the question now is, how do you move forward? What are the step-by-step, strategic and tactical things to be done on the ground to rescue this mission?

HOLBROOKE: Well, you already mentioned one of the most important, civilian casualties. When General McChrystal came out there, he and I talked before he went out, and he and I both agreed that the issue of civilian casualties was one of the most urgent and one that could sink the effort. Stan McChrystal, a great soldier, has changed the operational instructions to the troops. And you will notice that, with the tragic exception of the -- of the explosion of the oil tankers up in Mazar-e Sharif in the area -- the German sector, the civilian casualties issue is way, way down, not eliminated, because we recognized that.

What else are we going to do? Agriculture, major emphasis, as we discussed earlier. Emphasis on rule on law. Emphasis on corruption. Above all, emphasis on better training of the Afghan security forces, the police and the army. This area was not successful in the last eight years.

But let's be very clear here. The timeframe you're talking about preceded our time in office. We are aware of every one of these problems. A new general, a lieutenant general named Caldwell, is arriving in Afghanistan shortly to take over a unified training command. This is long overdue. I called for it in columns I wrote in the Washington Post three- and-a-half years ago. It's finally happening.

The Europeans are stepping up to the plate. I'll be going to Europe next week to talk to our European allies. I think that the amount of fixing of things that were in bad shape is -- is enormous, and it never gets reported, Christiane, because the emphasis is always on combat.

AMANPOUR: Well, we actually do report on it a lot, and that's why I keep insisting, because, actually, the so-called civilian surge has not happened. Hopefully, it will, and that's certainly what the Afghan people are waiting for.

But let's move across to Pakistan. You just said the Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, had a wonderful trip to Pakistan. We're going to play just a sound bite of what she said from there.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: There exists a trust deficit, certainly on the part of the Pakistanis, toward the United States, toward our intentions and our actions. And yet we have so much common, we face a common threat, we certainly have a common enemy in extremism and terrorism.


AMANPOUR: So there was obviously quite a lot of combative encounters between Secretary Clinton -- in fact, you were there -- we saw pictures of you -- and various editors and other civil society groups complaining about the U.S. How do you think now Pakistan is committed to this -- at least the fight against the Taliban and -- and Al Qaida there?

HOLBROOKE: I will answer that, but -- but, first, I must correct something you said going into the clip, and that is the civilian surge hasn't taken place. In fact, we've built from about 350 people, almost all of them in Kabul, to about 900 by the end of this year. They are pouring in. We have civilians out on the front lines with the troops in agriculture, rule of law, governance, and training.

And I -- on behalf of all the Americans who are volunteering, the State Department, AID, this statement really upsets them, so let's just clear the air. We -- enormous growth.

Now, back to Pakistan. The secretary of state had the most extraordinary trip I've ever seen of an American secretary of state. Hillary Clinton is enormously popular personally in -- in Pakistan, but America is not popular. When she talked in that sound bite you just used of a trust deficit, that's what she was referring to.


So she embarked on two trips at once, the private meetings with the president, the prime minister, the foreign minister, the military, the opposition, and that was terrific. But at the same time, she did massive public diplomacy. I've never seen a secretary of state wade in like that. She made herself available to editors, television, radio, leaders from FATA, including South Waziristan, where the fighting is going on, students, women leaders, business leaders, very hostile journalists, very aggressive skeptical journalists.

In every -- every discussion, when there was a disagreement -- and there were plenty of disagreements -- she said the same -- she said, in effect, the same message: We are friends who have some disagreements.

AMANPOUR: Can we switch gears? As I said, we'd talk about the Balkans quickly. You were the one who brokered the Dayton agreement and, under that, the alleged war criminal had to be brought to trial. After 12 or 13 years on the run, your old nemesis and adversary, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, is at the Hague, but is not yet on trial. Where do you think this is going? And can the tribunal afford to let him run the show, as they did with President Milosevic?

HOLBROOKE: I'm only laughing because this is where you and I came in and first met some 14 1/2 years ago, with you standing on tabletops and combat fatigues yelling very tough questions at me. So it -- it brings back a lot of memories.

I'm tempted to say you know Radovan Karadzic better than I do, but I'm going to let that go.

AMANPOUR: Well, precisely. Precisely. And he's up to his old tricks.

HOLBROOKE: I only met him once. He is up to his old tricks, but with one big difference: He's no longer killing people. He's in a well-padded cell. And the world knows that he is one of the great awful war criminals of modern history and is spreading his lies from the cell.

He deserves due process. I -- I am always troubled that the international war crimes tribunal has moved so slowly. That's why Milosevic never came to final conclusions, except by his health, and died in a prison cell of -- of heart attack.

But I must say that I would rather have Karadzic with a long, slow trial which no one's going to pay any attention to than a man at large. He should have been captured in 1995, '96. It was a horrible outcome that it took so long. And let's never forget that the awful mass murderer of Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic, is still out there.

You and I stood in the muddy fields in -- in 2005 on the 10th anniversary of the slaughter, and we did a very dramatic interview in the mud, in Srebrenica, one of the most emotional of my life, and yet the man who slaughtered people in Srebrenica in 1995 is still at large and probably sheltered by elements that -- that could bring him to justice. So I hope that will be resolved.

AMANPOUR: And that is the last word. Ambassador Holbrooke, thank you so much for joining us.

And for much more...

HOLBROOKE: Good to see you.

AMANPOUR: Thank you. And for much more on Bosnia, the Balkans, and the war in Afghanistan, you can go to our Web site, and there is an important new documentary that shows the challenges of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and the international troops' immense difficulties there, even in communicating with the people.


AMANPOUR: And now, our "Post-Script." We've been discussing the challenges that the U.S. and NATO soldiers face in Afghanistan. Over the past couple of months, our program has looked at all aspects of this war, the successes, the failures, and the challenges ahead.


And one of those is the cultural disconnect between the Afghan people and American and NATO soldiers, and one of the most basic being how to communicate, how to convey their message.

A recent PBS documentary called "Obama's War" presented the struggle of American troops in one village threatened by the Taliban.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Having gone where during fighting?


Having gone where during the fighting?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They haven't gone to, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gone where? You're not telling me where. Where have they gone?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They haven't gone to from here. They haven't gone from...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gone from where? Gone where from here? Where? I need you all to answer my questions. If not, then I'm going to believe right now that the Taliban does come here, they talk to you, you talk to them, and you're still on their side. All right, you need to understand that we are here to keep the Taliban out.






AMANPOUR: And as you could see at the beginning of that excerpt, if it wasn't so heartbreaking, it could have been a comedy routine. That was a fundamental lack of understanding between an American soldier and his translator. Building personal relations and cultural sensitivity is vital to successful counterinsurgency, as all of our experts on the ground tell us.

And this conversation will continue online on, where you can tell us what you think. That's it for now. Thanks for watching. And from all of us here, goodbye from New York.