Holbrooke on Af-Pak: Know success 'when we see it'

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said on Wednesday that while American forces have been making progress in the region it is still too early to tell what success might look like.

“We’ll know it when we see it,” said Richard Holbrooke, referencing the “Supreme Court test” of how to identify pornographic material.

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For the first time since its convening at the beginning of the year, Holbrooke presented his team of nearly a dozen regional experts in a public forum at the downtown St. Regis Hotel held by the Center for American Progress.

The interagency team has been tasked with planning the civilian role in the U.S. war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Team members deal with a variety of issues such as the recent cessation of U.S.-led poppy-eradication measures as well as U.S. efforts to seize control of radio broadcast channels used by the Taliban to counter the Taliban's propaganda.

Because Holbrooke’s team does not focus on the military aspect of the war he did not want to comment on reports that the U.S. may increase troop levels in the region in the near future.

“The military part of this struggle with American troops is not an open-ended event, but our civilian assistance is going to continue for a long time,” he said. “I can’t give you dates.”

Holbrooke’s senior adviser, Barnett Rubin, elaborated slightly, using vague terminology seemingly absent of measurable end results.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to say that we are committed to waging a war in Afghanistan until Afghanistan is a perfect democracy … nor would we expect people to believe such an unrealistic commitment,” Rubin said.

“But we are committed to fighting there until we are secure from terrorist attacks launched from there and until the region is secure from the danger of nuclear terrorism and other forms of destabilization."

However, Holbrooke said he was eager to reach some level of measurable success because he had been feeling pressure from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“We all feel the impatience and pressure of the American public and the Congress, which legitimately wants to see progress,” he said.

The largest obstacle to reaching a stable government in Afghanistan, Holbrooke said, is going to be training and ensuring a sound security force to take over control after U.S. military forces draw down their ranks.

“The biggest single problem we’re going to face, I’m going to be very honest with you, is going to be strengthening the police. There’s no question. You can’t do it unless the police take over a key role in security after the military forces do the clearing.”

While much focus has been placed on Pakistan, Holbrooke said that neighboring Iran played a vital role as well in Afghanistan’s continued success. Holbrooke’s senior defense adviser said in the past Iran has provided weapons to “some groups inside Afghanistan.”

“We are completely aware of the Iranian factor,” said Holbrooke, who added a jab at previous administrations. “They are a factor, and to pretend they’re not, as was often done in the past, doesn’t make much sense.”

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With Afghanistan’s presidential elections one week away, Holbrooke said that he expected some of the 41 candidates, if not all of them, to challenge the results.

“Will there be challenges to the election? There are in every other democracy. I think we should assume those,” he said.

“The process will take a while. The ballots have to be taken into Kabul and have to be counted. And there’ll be disputes as there are in American elections. We only picked a senator from Minnesota just a few weeks ago after a rather lengthy delay,” he said, referencing Sen. Al Franken’s win in a race that lasted eight months amid a recount and litigation.

In a passing blow at civilian contractors in Afghanistan, Holbrooke said the U.S. would be cutting back significantly on the number of contracts it awards.

“If any of you [are] in this room, be warned, we’re going to try and cut the contracts down,” he said. “We just have to because of the way they work, they’re not flexible. They undermine the government [that] we’re trying to strengthen.”