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Afghan Strategy More Than Counterinsurgency, Holbrooke Says

  • Andrew Tully

Richard Holbrooke (left) at the Center for American Progress on August 12

Richard Holbrooke (left) at the Center for American Progress on August 12

WASHINGTON -- Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says an important part of Washington's strategy to defeated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is recognizing that Afghanistan doesn't exist in a vacuum.

Holbrooke made his comments at a forum in Washington on August 12 sponsored by the Center for American Progress, where he noted that Afghanistan shares a long border with Iran, which gives Iran significant influence in the western of the country.

In particular, Holbrooke pointed to Herat, a city in northwestern Afghanistan at one end of a major road that leads into Iran.

"We recognize geography and its realities," Holbrooke said. "You know that Herat is in a kind of a cultural, economic orbit with political influence from Iran. Iran has a legitimate role to play in the resolution of the Afghan issue. But whether they'll play it or not depends on a lot of other critical factors."

Holbrooke noted that Iran played a constructive role in helping Karzai establish a stable government when he was first elected president. And Iran also has been helpful with Pakistan, pledging $330 million to Islamabad at an international conference in Tokyo in April.

Beyond cultural, commercial, and political links, Holbrooke said, Iran has another important reason to play a constructive role in Afghanistan, and that is the growing of opium poppies by Afghan farmers, whose proceeds help finance the insurgency.

Holbrooke said some of the heroin that originates in Afghanistan goes to a growing number of customers in Iran.

"Iran has arguably...the largest problem as a percentage of adult population of drug addiction in the world. And those drugs are coming across the Afghan border. And it is a major concern to them," he said.

'Legitimizing' The Government

Holbrooke said the Afghan drug problem also affects Russia. He pointed to the declaration signed last month in Moscow by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, when the Russian leader expressed concern about drug imports from Afghanistan and the effect it's been having on his country.

During the forum, Holbrooke also focused on Afghanistan's August 20 presidential elections and the U.S.-led effort to provide security for the vote. He said his team's political goals related to the election include contending with political corruption, establishing amnesty for former antigovernment guerrillas, and improving regional and local governance.

Holbrooke said none of these issues can be addressed properly until the citizens of Afghanistan, under the protection of NATO forces, choose a new government with a proper mandate.

"All of these issues are vitally important in an overall counterinsurgency effort. And we're working on them," Holbrooke said. "But until the election legitimizes the government -- whoever wins -- we have had to focus on [security for the election]."

Holbrooke said other elements of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan are helping the country establish sustainable agriculture, setting up legal institutions, and focusing drug interdiction not on poppy farmers, but on higher-level distributors.

In the end, though, Holbrooke conceded that there's no guarantee that this multifaceted strategy will succeed, only that the United States is "in this fight to succeed."