More from Munich: Holbrooke in frustration

This is the last bit I’ll have for you on the blog from this weekend’s Munich Security Conference. My extended column in the next issue will be about all the fun, and I’ll be a guest on Politics with Don Newman today at 5 p.m. Eastern on Newsworld to dish. (Remember, if you miss the broooadcast, you can always download the pooodcast.) Below is the last intervention of the three-day conference, at the end of the panel discussion that included Peter MacKay and David Petraeus. This is Richard Holbrooke, who was Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the U.N. and his special envoy for Bosnia (the Dayton Accords). He would probably have been secretary of state if Hillary Clinton had managed to become president, but instead he’s her (and her boss’s) special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We often call it Af-Pak,” he told the Munich crowd, “and not only to save eight syllables,” which is good because it would save six. Parts of this transcript led the news after Sunday’s conference, but I wanted to give you nearly all of it, so you can really get a sense of the sense of foreboding Holbrooke left the crowd with.

“Let’s not kid ourselves: The task ahead of us is far, far more difficult than anything that has been said this morning. I have never, in my experience in the U.S. government that started in Vietnam, ever seen anything as difficult as the situation that confronts the countries involved in Afghanistan and Pakistan at this point. We’ve only scratched the surface.

“A lot has been said here today, but one of the most important comments was just made by the minister [British Defence Minister John Hutton] about co-ordination: people got up and pledged it but nothing happened. And that’s the story of Afghanistan. People sit on this stage and pledge cooperation, and nothing happens. Within the U.S. government, nothing is co-ordinated. In the foreign assistance program, I have never seen anything remotely resembling the mess we have inherited. Take a major issue like rule of law. If you try to examine where the money comes from and where it goes, you’ll discover there are three separate spigots of money coming under rule of law and then dribbling out to three separate organizations in Kabul which don’t even coordinate among themselves.

“David and I are going to try to fix that together; that’s the assignment we’ve been given by the president. And I’m very proud of the fact that one of his closest colleagues [Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry] is going to take over as ambassador… somebody who’s enormously respected by the Afghan people. But let us not kid ourselves… in my view it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq. And one final point: the west has been involved in Afghanistan for centuries, always with unfortunate results. I don’t believe we can afford to get it wrong this time, because for the first time the situation directly involves the homeland security of the nations involved. It’s no longer some expeditionary adventure echoing the days of the Great Game and the novels about Flashman. This is for real this time. And we’re going to have to do much, much better on behalf of the countries we represent, and for the Afghan and Pakistan people. “

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.