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Holbrooke: Strong Support For Afghanistan

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The Obama administration's new strategy in Afghanistan is the topic of discussion today on Capitol Hill and in Europe - that's where we turn now.

Richard Holbrooke is the president's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He's meeting with NATO allies in Brussels, and he joins me now to talk about the new strategy.

Ambassador Holbrooke, welcome to the program.

Ambassador RICHARD HOLBROOKE (U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan): Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: President Obama has said that he expects NATO allies to come up with more forces for Afghanistan. But so far we've seen reluctance from some of the largest troop contributors, including France and Germany, to send more soldiers or extend the mandate of those who are there. And some countries, like the Netherlands and Canada, are pulling their forces out. If the terrorist threat affects us all, how do you explain and overcome these countries' reluctance?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I just - I have to respectfully question your premise. We're here in Brussels to get a widespread NATO endorsement of the president's speech in our commitment of additional forces. We're not here to raise troops. But we do hope that other nations will join us. We are getting tremendous expressions of support.

I've worked on NATO and European issues now for close to 20 years - in the Bosnian period, watched it during Iraq - this is the best support I think we've had in international coalition in my time.

BLOCK: And for the holdouts, the countries where this war has proved extremely unpopular at home, what's your pitch to them? What do you say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I don't like the word pitch in that regard, Melissa.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: But what I say is we have a common enemy, a common challenge and a common task. The terrorists who attacked New York and Washington, in London and Madrid, in Bali and Casablanca, and Mumbai and, yes indeed, attacked Islamabad itself, are centered on the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. By their own admission, they pose a threat to all of the countries that we've mentioned today, and we have to deal with it.

BLOCK: Ambassador Holbrooke, so far, the president's new strategy has not been publically embraced by Pakistan's leaders. And today, the Pakistani prime minister said he wouldn't endorse it. He wants more clarity. In particular, the Pakistanis are worried that a larger U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would have a spillover effect, that it'll send more Taliban fighters over the border into Pakistan.

How do you allay those fears?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, first of all, we have spent more time consulting Pakistan than any other nation in the world. And my answer to your comment is that the Pakistani concern, that a military success in Afghanistan would have a spillover effect that is negative in Pakistan, is entirely justified on the basis of recent history, because that's what happened in 2002. The United States drove the Taliban and al-Qaida out of Afghanistan and they went into Pakistan where they nested and grew like a malignant tumor.

So, I understand completely why Prime Minister Gilani would have concerns. We understand those concerns and we have shared with the Pakistanis all our planning. But whatever is being said in public, the Pakistanis understand full well the point I made a moment ago in another context, about having a common enemy and a common challenge and a common task.

BLOCK: Are you saying that there's one message that the Pakistani leadership is saying publically and you're getting a different message when you meet with them privately? In other words, there's one message for public consumption for the folks at home in Pakistan.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: No. I did not quite say that, Melissa, because I wouldn't want to accuse people of that. What I said is there is a deepening collaborative effort between our two governments. And I should add not just in this area you're talking about, but in the economic field, close collaboration politically. Pakistan and the U.S. have gone through a very rocky period in the last decade and we're coming out of that.

BLOCK: Ambassador Holbrooke, on the Afghan side, President Hamid Karzai has promised to take a tougher line against corruption. Are you seeing any signs that he's doing that?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: He only took office, you know, re-inaugurated on the 19th of November. So, best I can say is he made some pledges in his inaugural address, and on November 19th, Hillary Clinton and I were sitting in the audience listening. And she then said publically, and President Obama said publically on Tuesday night, that that inaugural speech contained important statements on this and other issues. And we hope we will hold them accountable to carry out their own pledges to their own people, that includes corruption.

BLOCK: And do you have confidence in President Karzai that he can do that, that he can be a credible partner and do what he's promising to do?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, let's give him a chance and see what happens.

BLOCK: Well, he's been in power for some time now and you've seen how he works.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I really believe in giving a person a fresh start when he's re-elected. That doesn't mean you forget the past, but you build from it.

BLOCK: Ambassador Holbrooke, you started your Foreign Service career in Vietnam in the 1960s, and obviously there are lots of questions now about whether Afghanistan is or is not following along that same path.

What parallels do you see? What differences do you see between then and now, and the fear of a war that cannot be won?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I get asked this question a lot.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: And there are some structural areas of similarity. Above all, the most important similarity is the fact that in both cases, the enemy had a safe sanctuary in a neighboring country.

Now, having said that, Melissa, I want to stress the core difference. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese never posed a direct threat to the United States homeland and its population. But in Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida, who are integrally related, do pose a direct threat to the U.S. That's the fundamental difference right there.

BLOCK: And the lessons in terms of how you counteract that threat, how you win this war?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: In order to win the war, we have to deal with three or four major issues which are quite important. The first and biggest issue to deal with in my view is the sanctuary issue in Pakistan. The second issue is governance and capability of the Afghan government to deliver services to the people and a promise of a better life. Corruption is a big problem, so these are things we have to watch for.

In the past, there was no real follow-up or oversight on these things, and we just have to hope there's going to be now. Not hope, that's not fair. We can't just hope. It's our job and we would do a better job than our predecessors; of that I'm sure.

BLOCK: Ambassador Holbrooke, thanks for your time.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Thank you. It's a great pleasure to be on your program.

BLOCK: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is the president's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He spoke with us from Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.