New York- With the death of Richard Holbrooke, will the idea of a Dayton-style negotiated settlement die with him? Last Wednesday when I arrived on the Acela in D.C. from New York I was talking with a colleague (the day before the Jamestown Foundation terrorism conference where Amrullah Saleh would be speaking the next day) and he mentioned that somebody from Holbrooke’s office at State had wanted to set up a time to meet with Saleh while he was in town. I tried to suggest that he tell Holbrooke’s underling to tell the man himself to come and crash our conference if he wanted to see Mr. Saleh badly enough. I’m quite sure my message never filtered up the chain and got to Holbrooke. I did keep an eye out for him throughout the day as I paced up and down the hallway of the National Press Club outside the Grand Ballroom half expecting the see the “bulldozer” barge in with a young-ish entourage from the office he set up. Obviously he never showed and I doubt he even knew about the event (though I’m sure he would have liked to have).
Looking back on it all with a bit of perspective, Saleh and Holbrooke’s positions are and were diametrically opposed vis-a-vis the Taleban. Holbrooke was a man of negotiated settlements beginning with the Paris Peace Accords formally ending American involvement in the war in Viet Nam and most notably the 1995 Dayton [Ohio] Accords which brought a tripartite peace to the three Yugoslav successor states that had fought so bitterly since 1992. But Mullah Muhammed Omar is no Slobodan Mliosevic (though Gulbuddin Hekmatyar could be?) and the idea of a negotiated settlement via a “retail” peace agreement with “moderate” Taleban is an anathema to men like Saleh who were fighting against the Taleban as they struggled-and because of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces-and failed to control 100% of Afghanistan’s territory. Perhaps there are some in the Pashtun belt (aka AfPak) that believe a settlement or concessions to the Taleban are a worthwhile idea but for many Pashtuns and to the rest of those peoples who compose Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious mosaic, there will be more war before such a peace, Western troops or no Western troops.
If Holbrooke had come to my event it would have been the last of his professional career unbeknownst to me the day before. The quote in The Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandersekaran’s article about Holbrooke’s death, that he was being operated on by a Pakistani surgeon at George Washington University Hospital and said as (what may have been) his last words while on his literal death bed: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan”, was almost a caricature of poignancy. Except that is was not a caricature, he was someone who was genuinely and immensely interested in ending the “long war” in Central and South Asia’s perennially troubled Pashtun belt. It was not an act, he died doing it. And though he certainly had his critics regarding his approach and ideas for negotiations, with his disappearance from the political landscape, now, there will assuredly be no Dayton for AfPak.