Skip to main content

Holbrooke: Too early to gauge Marjah operation's success

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • The Marjah operation is going slower than expected, Holbrooke says
  • U.S. troops need to train the Afghan police and army to provide security
  • Dialogue underway between Afghanistan and Pakistan

(CNN) -- It would be inaccurate to call the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan's Marjah district a failure, and yet it's too early to call it a success, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan told CNN Sunday.

"What's happening in Marjah is that the U.S. military and NATO went into one of the most difficult areas of the country, one of the bellies of the insurgency, displaced the Taliban and settled in," Richard Holbrooke told CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS."

"The people are pleased with this," he said. "This was an area called 'Little America' in the Kennedy and Johnson era. They remember the Americans. We came in with agricultural support and seed. And we broke up big drug bazaars. So a tremendous amount of gain occurred immediately.

"I met with the tribal leaders and the Shura and they said, 'Thank you for coming.' But they also said three important things -- we risked our lives to come here today; we must have agricultural assistance; and we must have security.'"

The United States can't provide that security indefinitely, he said, and will have to train the Afghan police and army to replace them. Such a "clear, hold and build" strategy is "at the heart of counterinsurgency," Holbrooke said. "It's not accurate to say Marjah's a failure and it's premature to say Marjah's a success."

Asked if offensives are being postponed because the Taliban has proven stronger than expected, Holbrooke told Zakaria, "Marjah was not postponed. It's simply that the transfer of security authority from the Marines to the Afghans is going slower than some of the more optimistic projections at the outset. This doesn't surprise me. As a general rule in Afghanistan, things go slower than are expected."

The Marjah offensive, known as Operation Moshtarak, was launched in February by an international coalition of 15,000

troops including Afghans, Americans, Britons, Canadians, Danes and Estonians.

The Taliban had set up a shadow government in Helmand province's Marjah region, long a bastion of pro-Taliban sentiment. It is a key area in Afghanistan's heroin trade and full of the opium used to fund the insurgency.

Last month, Gen. David Petraeus -- the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- said Operation Moshtarak is not going as well "as the most optimistic (initial) predictions." While progress is being made, it has been harder and slower than anticipated, Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing.

Zakaria pointed out that Holbrooke gained international fame by negotiating with Slodoban Milosevic in the Balkans, and asked why similar negotiations cannot be undertaken with the Taliban.

"There's a huge difference between the head of an established government and some crazed terrorists who are hiding in the tribal areas of Afghanistan," Holbrooke said. "Among the Taliban leadership there are some people who are reconcilable and some (who) are not. The United States has had no direct contact with any of the Taliban leadership, but we read constantly, we hear constantly of other groups in touch. We support a policy in which the Afghan government of President (Hamid) Karzai takes the lead.

Asked about a previous quote in which he said that people in administrations "sit in a room. They don't air their real differences," Holbrooke said that "does not apply to this administration" and the quote stemmed from "my experience starting as a young diplomat 25 years old in the Lyndon Johnson White House."

"None of that exists in this administration," he said. "The relationships are extraordinarily good at the highest levels. However, there are individuals who have their own agendas and so on, but those games are mercifully not present in this administration."

Meanwhile, he said a dialogue has begun between Pakistan's national army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, and Karzai. "That is a good thing, not a bad thing," he said. "As long as they had no dialogue, you couldn't get anywhere."

"We have a policy here which is to try to reduce the gap between Islamabad and Kabul, a historic gap which goes back to the independence of Pakistan 63 years ago, and to make them work together for a common objective while taking into account the strategic interests of India and other regional neighbors. And that is moving forward. It's a tough, difficult policy. But it is the only one that meets our regional and international/national security interests."