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Instead, Holbrooke focused on building a team of hard-nosed experts to help him do whatever he was supposed to do regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan (as distinct from what the U.S. ambassadors and military commanders were already doing).
By the summer of 2009, it had become painfully obvious that Holbrooke, with all his experience, had failed to help clarify the ambiguity surrounding the Afghan mission.
As Gen. Stanley McChrystal got ready to request thousands more troops for the mission, there still wasn't even a reasonable measuring stick for gauging progress on the vague policy goal: "to defeat, destroy, dismantle al-Qaeda."
The Center for American Progress, led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, had surprised many, including me, by endorsing Obama's non-strategy of throwing more troops into the fray in Afghanistan (a "smart" endorsement on the Center's part, if it wanted to safeguard its place at Obama's table).
In any case, on Aug. 12, 2009, with considerable fanfare, Podesta's Center hosted Holbrooke and asked him to address the policy objectives in Afghanistan and how he intended to measure success toward them.
Holbrooke bragged that he had completed amassing "the best team," but he shed little light on what the war's end game was to be and which plays should be called to get there. To his credit, Podesta made clear what he had hoped to achieve at the meeting; namely, a "focus on " our objectives in Afghanistan and how we measure progress."
Holbrooke: "We know the difference with input and output, and what you are seeing here is input. The payoff is still to come. We have to produce results and we understand that " and we're not here today to tell you we're winning or we're losing. We're not here today to say we're optimistic or pessimistic."
Podesta: "How do you define clear objectives of what you're trying to succeed as outputs with the inputs that you just talked about?"
Holbrooke: "A very key question, John, which you're alluding to is, of course, if our objective is to defeat, destroy, dismantle al-Qaeda, and they're primarily in Pakistan, why are we doing so much in Afghanistan? " If you abandon the struggle in Afghanistan, you will suffer against al-Qaeda as well. But we have to be clear on what our national interests are here "
"The specific goal you ask, John, -- it is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we'll know it when we see it."
That adage, first used by Justice Potter Stewart a half-century ago with respect to pornography, also found favor among neo-conservatives and their supporters in Washington during George W. Bush's presidency. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz employed it in December 2002, just three months before the U.S.-U.K. attack on Iraq.
Unable to come up with any specific evidence of a WMD program in Iraq, but determined to rebut Saddam Hussein's claims that he had none, Wolfowitz quipped, "It's like the judge said about pornography. I can't define it, but I will know it when I see it."
The phrase always earned a knowing chuckle around the power tables of Washington, but it amounted to punting a shanked punt at that when justifying the dispatch of American soldiers into bloody conflicts.
Given Holbrooke's inability to explain a clear path toward success in Afghanistan, it should have come as no surprise when former Marine Corps captain and State Department official Matthew Hoh resigned in September 2009. Hoh explained that he had "lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States presence in Afghanistan "why, and to what end?"