Potter Stewart's Afghanistan Triumph

Judging by the reviews, America's bluntest diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, did not impress an audience of policy wonks this morning. And that should worry the administration: Holbrooke, of course, is the president's point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan -- AfPak -- his coinage.  Asked at a panel in Washington how the administration is defining success in the region, Holbrooke answered.  "In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue: We'll know it when we see it."

For those, right and left, who worry that the administration lacks a strategy and has anything other than a fuzzy sense of what progress constitutes, Holbrooke's comment is the very model of a Kinsley gaffe -- when a Washington hand accidentally tells the truth.  Actually, Holbrooke probably intended to say what he said.

Anyway, mouths dropped open, apparently. As Spencer Ackerman writes, "Holbrooke's answer suggested an unresolved tension at the level of strategy."

Whether or not the administration has a strategy in Afghanistan that goes beyond tactics, like the interagency, civilian surge that Holbrooke is coordinating, and the counterinsurgency doctrine that now guides the military, is of secondary importance. If the administration can't figure out how to describe it, it doesn't exist. When the U.S. first sent paramilitary CIA officers into Northern Afghanistan in late 2002, the American people and Congress didn't demand a strategy: Osama Bin Laden's attacks were fresh on the mind and "defeating the Taliban" was easy to picture in the mind's eye. There's been clear mission creep. The goal now is to defeat Al Qaeda and stabilize the region.  Americans -- and Democrats in Congress -- are very wary of region stabilizing. It suggests, in essence, imperial command over a chaotic area -- the assumption of responsibility for an interest that isn't clear, and the sacrifice of American lives because other countries can't get their priorities straight. The nuclear threat from Pakistan and radicals is clarifying, but it is tertiary and not well communicated by this administration.