What Holbrooke Knew

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nicholas D. Kristof

US AfghanistanWhen he was alive, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was effectively gagged, unable to comment on what he saw as missteps of the Obama administration that he served. But as we face a crisis in Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden, it’s worth listening to Holbrooke’s counsel — from beyond the grave.

As one of America’s finest strategic thinkers and special envoy to the Af-Pak region, Holbrooke represented the administration — but also chafed at aspects of the White House approach. In particular, he winced at the overreliance on military force, for it reminded him of Vietnam.

“There are structural similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam,” he noted, in scattered reflections now in the hands of his widow, Kati Marton.

“He thought that this could become Obama’s Vietnam,” Marton recalled. “Some of the conversations in the Situation Room reminded him of conversations in the Johnson White House. When he raised that, Obama didn’t want to hear it.”

Because he was fiercely loyal to his friend Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, Holbrooke bit his lip and kept quiet in public. But he died in December, and Marton and some of his friends (me included) believe it’s time to lift the cone of silence and share his private views. At this time, with Pakistan relations in a crisis and Afghanistan under review, our country could use a dose of his wisdom.

Holbrooke opposed the military “surge” in Afghanistan and would see the demise of Bin Laden as an opportunity to go into diplomatic overdrive. He believed strongly that the only way out of the mess in Afghanistan was a peace deal with the Taliban, and his team was secretly engaged in outreach to figures linked to the Taliban, Marton says.

“Reconciliation — that was what he was working toward in Afghanistan, and building up the civilian and political side that had been swamped by the military,” Marton recalled. “The whole policy was off-kilter, way too militarized. Richard never thought that this war could be won on the battlefield.”

His aim, she says, was something like the Balkan peace agreement he negotiated at a military base in Dayton, Ohio. The process would be led by the United States but include all the regional players, including Pakistan and Iran.

“He was dreaming of a Dayton-like setting somewhere, isolated, no media, no Washington bureaucracy,” Marton said. “He was a long way from that, but he was dreaming of that.”

Vali Nasr, a member of Holbrooke’s team at the State Department, puts it this way: “He understood from his experience that every conflict has to end at the negotiating table.”

Nasr says that Holbrooke’s aim for Afghanistan was “not cut-and-run, but a viable, lasting solution” to end the civil war there. If Holbrooke were still alive, Nasr says, he would be shuttling frantically between Islamabad and Kabul, trying to take advantage of Bin Laden’s killing to lay the groundwork for a peace process.

To do that, though, we have to put diplomacy and development — and not 100,000 troops, costing $10 billion a month — at the heart of our Afghan policy. Holbrooke was bemused that he would arrive at a meeting in a taxi, while Gen. David Petraeus would arrive escorted by what seemed a battalion of aides. And Holbrooke would flinch when Petraeus would warmly refer to him as his “wingman” — meaning it as a huge compliment — rather than seeing military force as the adjunct to diplomacy.

As for Pakistan, Holbrooke told me and others that because of its size and nuclear weaponry, it was center stage; Afghanistan was a sideshow.

“A stable Afghanistan is not essential; a stable Pakistan is essential,” he noted, in the musings he left behind. He believed that a crucial step to reducing radicalism in Pakistan was to ease the Kashmir dispute with India, and he favored more pressure on India to achieve that.

Holbrooke was frustrated by Islamabad’s duplicity. But he also realized that Pakistan sheltered the Afghan Taliban because it distrusted the United States, particularly after the United States walked away in 1989 after the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan. And renewed threats of abandonment won’t build trust.

Rather, Holbrooke poured his soul into building a relationship not only with Pakistani generals but also with the Pakistani people, and there were modest dividends. He helped improve C.I.A. access to Pakistan, which may have helped with the raid on the Bin Laden compound. And he soothed opposition to drone attacks, Nasr noted.

“He was treating them as a serious player, not as if you’re just having a one-night stand but as if there might actually be marriage at the end of the relationship,” Marton said.

It’s a vision of painstaking diplomacy toward a strategic goal — peace — and it’s what we need more of. President Obama said wonderful things at the memorial service for Holbrooke. But the best tribute would be to listen to his advice.

13-21

His Maternal Instinct

July 23, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times

shershah syed

Dr Syed with Ashrafi Akbar.

Nicholas D. Kristof (The NYT)

She is an illiterate woman from the tribal areas of Pakistan who almost died in childbirth a year after marrying at the age of 12. She suffered a horrific injury during labor called a fistula that left her incontinent and smelly, and for the next 13 years she was confined to her house — never stepping outside for shame at the way she was leaking wastes.

He is a famous Pakistani ob-gyn who was educated in Ireland. After spending eight years there, he returned with plans to set up a fertility clinic for rich patients and zip around in a Mercedes-Benz. But he was so shattered by the sight of women dying unnecessarily in childbirth that he decided to devote his career instead to helping impoverished women like her.

So they met in one of the hospitals established by the doctor, Shershah Syed, and he has been helping the young woman, Ashrafi Akbar. She is scheduled to undergo a final repair of her fistula in that hospital today.

People in the West are properly outraged by Taliban oppression of women in parts of Pakistan. But some of the greatest suffering of women here isn’t political or religious. It comes simply from the inattention to maternal health care.

Here in Pakistan, a woman dies every 35 minutes because of problems from pregnancy or childbirth, according to United Nations figures.

The underlying reason is that maternal health has never been a priority globally, either to poor countries or to foreign aid donors like the United States. The only exceptions are Britain and Norway, and I hope the Obama administration will back them up.

In this part of Pakistan, Sindh Province, there is a saying that goes: If your cow dies, that is a tragedy; if your wife dies, you can always get another.

“This is simpler than an atomic bomb,” Dr. Shershah said, speaking of improving maternal health in Pakistan. “We have an atomic bomb, but we haven’t done this because the government isn’t interested. The day the government decides it doesn’t want maternal deaths, we will have no more mothers dying.”

Ashrafi’s case was typical: She tried to deliver at home with the help of an untrained birth attendant. But her pelvis wasn’t big enough to accommodate the baby’s head, so four exhausting days of labor produced nothing.

Finally, the family took Ashrafi to a clinic, and the baby was delivered dead. Then she found that she was dribbling urine and stool through her vagina. She smelled, and the salts in her urine left sores on her thighs.

Ashrafi had heard that doctors in Karachi might be able to cure her, and she asked if someone could take her. Instead, Ashrafi’s husband divorced her. Embarrassed and humiliated, Ashrafi fell into a deep depression. She locked herself up in her parents’ home and refused to see anyone.

Thirteen years passed. Ashrafi says she didn’t leave the house once. I asked her, and a cousin of hers whom I reached by telephone, how she spent her days. The answer: sewing, caring for her sick mother — and crying.

Finally, she prevailed upon her brothers to take her to Karachi, where she was examined by Dr. Shershah. At 56, he is one of his country’s best-known doctors and is president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pakistan. But three times he has been pushed out of his job, he said, for saying that resources would be better spent on education and health than on atomic weapons or F-16s.

With government support nine years ago, Dr. Shershah started a top-level maternity wing in a public hospital in Orangi, an impoverished Karachi neighborhood that by some reckonings is the largest slum in the world. The hospital now handles 6,500 deliveries a year — yes, 6,500 — and accepts women from hundreds of miles away. Several years ago, a half-dead woman came from Baluchistan Province — by camel.

In addition, Dr. Shershah is hitting up friends to try to build a new maternity hospital on the grounds of a former madrassa on the edge of Karachi. So far, he has built a wing to repair fistulas free of charge and to train midwives. He says that in five years or so, as the money trickles in, the hospital will be complete. (Friends in America have set up a tax-deductible charity, National Health Forum. For more information, please go to my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.)

In addition to his regular work, Dr. Shershah repairs fistulas there every Sunday, and that is how he encountered Ashrafi. Her case turned out to require a series of operations because of the long wait. But after six months of surgeries, she should be repaired and ready to go home by the end of this month.

Already, the nurses say, she is different from the shy, morose young woman who arrived. Now she smiles and sometimes laughs, and she spends her days outside in the hospital courtyard, bathing in the sunlight that she missed for 13 years.

11-31