Richard Holbrooke's Last Words: End the War in Afghanistan

He told his Pakistani doctor the war had to end just before going under for surgery

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Richard Holbrooke's last words were "you've got to stop this war in Afghanistan," The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports. That Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, would say such a thing to his Pakistani doctor before undergoing 21 hours of surgery is puzzling to some, a warning to others. For starters: was Holbrooke talking about Pakistan stopping the war, or America stopping it?

Holbrooke's first foreign assignment was in Vietnam. He famously brokered the Dayton Peace Accords to end the war in Bosnia. He wanted a smaller surge in Afghanistan but opposed a deadline for pulling out troops. Some are pulling together these facts from Holbrooke's biography to inform their reading of this simultaneously clear and cryptic statement.

  • Did Holbrooke Oppose the War? Blake Hounshell asks at Foreign Policy. Holbrooke "had expressed few public doubts about the wisdom of U.S. efforts there. Despite constant sniping at him in the press (and some unkind words in Bob Woodward's latest), he remained officially upbeat about what he was doing ... But he clearly had grave doubts about the war. He is quoted in Woodward's book saying that 'If there are 10 possible outcomes in Afghanistan, nine of them are bad.'" Holbrooke had trouble getting along with the military, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Bruce Riedel (who led the war strategy review in 2009), and, most troublingly, President Obama, which made Hillary Clinton less willing to share her thoughts. It's too early to tell if the surge worked in Afghanistan, Hounshell writes, "But one has to wonder: If Holbrooke and Obama had gotten along better, or if Clinton had been less guarded in her own views, would history be playing out differently?"
  • It Shows His Optimism--And His Realism, The Spectator's Alex Massie argues. Massie says he's not sure Holbrooke had become a dove, "But whatever the mess in Afghanistan --and however difficult it will be to extricate ourselves from it--Holbrooke's final piece of advice was not, I think, directed towards Washington. Since the New York surgeon operating on his heart was born in Pakistan, it seems reasonably probable that the 'You' refers to Pakistan. So there you have it," he concludes: "Richard Holbrooke, Optimist. But also Realist since everyone agrees that Afghanistan can't be 'solved' without Pakistan. Unfortunately everyone also seems to agree that Pakistan can't be solved with Pakistan. Which means that, in the end, even the Optimists in the Hindu Kush are really Pessimists."
  • Unfinished Business  "It is characteristic of this hard-driving, high-octane professional that his final thoughts would be of the task that he had left undone," writes GlobalPost's Jean MacKenzie. "But in the end Afghanistan defeated even this titan of diplomacy. Holbrooke's last post, as the Obama administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will most likely not figure among his finest hours." Peter Galbraith said Dayton would be Holbrooke's legacy, recalls MacKenzie. "Afghanistan, added Galbraith, was a 'morass' with no clear solution."
  • He Knew These Were His Last Words, Kathy Kattenburg at The Moderate Voice. Responding to Mackenzie, Kattenburg writes that, while perhaps Afghanistan was left "undone," her first thought upon reading "that Holbrooke said this was how moving it was, because obviously he knew this was probably his last conscious moment to express any wishes or thoughts at all, and the thought that was uppermost in his mind was not about himself or his torn aorta or the surgery he was about to undergo or the likelihood that he would never wake up again."
  • Surely He Remembered Vietnam, Salon's Glenn Greenwald says. "Ironically, Holbrooke was the author of one of the volumes of the Pentagon Papers--which revealed that government officials knew of the futility of the Vietnam War at the same time they were falsely assuring the public they could win--and Afghanistan seems to be no different.  As official Washington rushes forward to lavish praise on Holbrooke's wisdom and service, undoubtedly they will studiously avoid acknowledging his final insight."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.