Former State Department Advisor Vali Nasr has set Washington abuzz with his gloves-off denunciation of the Obama administration's conduct of foreign policy, in particular the war in Afghanistan. Rarely does a recently former government official let loose with such an unalloyed vilification of the administration he served -- especially when it is still in power.
But "The Inside Story of how the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan" is more conventional than it may at first appear. Nasr's is merely the latest salvo in ongoing interagency skirmishing to define the narrative on Afghanistan, to tell a story that lays the blame for the policy's failure at someone else's door.
In this case, the originality is that the tale's main villain is not the military, but the White House (albeit described as bewitched by the military). The hounded victims are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Richard Holbrooke -- who happen to have been Nasr's friends and bosses.
What this account is missing -- what so many such accounts are missing -- is the humility and intellectual honesty to take a candid look inward, to strive for a nuanced assessment of our shared missteps, in what I, like Nasr, believe will be a grim outcome for Afghanistan, and ultimately for international security.
When Nasr was senior advisor to Holbrooke, I was serving in a similar capacity, first for two commanders of the international troops in Afghanistan, and then for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I took up these positions on the heels of seven years working in downtown Kandahar, where I ran an NGO and then a manufacturing cooperative.
So my perspective on the events Nasr describes, and in which I participated, differs from his in two respects. I came to them bathed in the aspirations of ordinary Afghans, in their attitudes to what was happening in their country, and to the international intervention. And I was privy to the actual views of senior military officials regarding the appropriate balance between military and civilian instruments of power in conducting the Afghanistan mission.
Like many civilians, Nasr paints the military in primary colors, as a monolithic, power-hungry leviathan. "The military," he declares, "wanted to stay in charge." Somewhat more remarkably, he depicts President Barak Obama as enthralled by the Pentagon, "not keen on showing daylight between the White House and the military."