Holbrooke: New Tactics to Break Afghan Stalemate

Afghan support for President Hamid Karzai weakens.

KABUL, Afghanistan, July 27, 2009 — -- U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke outlined new tactics for the war in Afghanistan amid indications that war's long stalemate has weakened support for President Hamid Karzai in next month's election.

Holbrooke brings an aggressive approach to altering U.S. policy in Afghanistan, unafraid to blame the previous administration as much as decades of war for the country's woes.

"We're helping a nation get back on its feet after 30 horrible years, starting with the Soviet invasion, the Taliban era and, let me be honest, the period in the last few years. We made mistakes ourselves," Holbrooke told reporters during a visit to Ghazni province.

This article is the first in a series by ABCNews.com titled "The Fight For Afghanistan, Where We Stand." The series will take a closer look at the war in Afghanistan.

More than 7½ years after the war began, Afghanistan has never been more dangerous for U.S. troops. July was the deadliest month of the war for all foreign troops, and according to an ABC News poll taken earlier this year, Afghans are twice as pessimistic about the future of their country as they were in 2004.

"It's been a stalemate. Neither side was going to win," Holbrooke said in an interview when asked whether he agreed with those who declared the war a stalemate. "And that is not where you want American troops and those of our allies. So we're changing it."

This administration's most visual policy change was the deployment of more than 20,000 additional troops to southern Afghanistan, the first time the U.S. has committed large resources to the Taliban heartland.

For the latest news on the Taliban in Afghanistan click here.

Its most dramatic policy shift, however, may be a fundamental overhaul in how it treats the country's farmers. Eighty percent of working age males -- those who are also doing most of the fighting -- are farmers, and while the U.S. has spent tens of millions of dollars on agriculture policy, it also tried to eradicate poppy fields, the most profitable crop in the country.

For a full transcript of the interview with Holbrooke, click here.

"That turned farmers against us," Holbrooke said, giving them the impression that the U.S. was waging war against the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that forms the majority of Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

"We are not fighting the Pashtun people," Holbrooke told a group of religious elders. "We are trying to help the Pashtun people."

Progress, not Eradication

The U.S. is ending all of its eradication efforts, Holbrooke said, boosting resources instead to programs that increase crop production and help farmers meet regional food needs.

Tens of millions of dollars spend by the United States Agency for International Development and the Department of Agriculture could now become hundreds of millions. Across the south, military commanders in charge of development are requesting "agriculture teams," some as large as 100 people -- in some cases doubling the number of resources available to Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

The idea, U.S. officials said, is to give farmers a sense of confidence and hope that their lives can improve in the future. That, the officials hope, will help eliminate many of the fighters who chose to pick up a gun for a $100-$200 per month Taliban paycheck.

"Give jobs to rural young men," Holbrooke said in the interview, "which will take them away from the Taliban."

That is most important across southern Afghanistan where 10,000 U.S.Marines have recently deployed to Helmand and Farah provinces, and some 10,000 soldiers are moving into neighboring Kandahar and Zabul provinces.

That area is mostly Pashtun and the largest voting bloc for President Hamid Karzai, who is also Pashtun. He has been widely expected to win the Aug. 20 election, only the second election in the country's history and the first truly contested race.

It is difficult to accurately judge the race since there are no reliable, recent polls of the Afghan public. But in interviews with people who have recently met with Karzai as well as discussions with the opposition candidates and their aides, there appears to be a shift in momentum away from Karzai.

In a meeting with Holbrooke, Karzai was unusually businesslike, two of Holbrooke's aides said, and seemed worried about the election results. Karzai argued that as many as 40 percent of all Pashtuns wouldn't vote because of lack of security, a number that one U.S. official called "inflated."

"For a guy who was supposed to have a good reelection plan, he did not seem confident," one of Holbrooke's aides said after the meeting.

For one, it appears as if one of Afghanistan's most influential group of clerics is turning against him.

One of Holbrooke's first visits in Kabul was with the Ulema council, the arbiters of Sharia law in the country.

Toward the end of an hour-long discussion, Holbrooke asked the lead cleric what he thinks he should tell Karzai in an upcoming meeting.

"Get angry sometimes," Afghanistan's chief justice, Hadi Shinwari, told Holbrooke.

Holbrooke, somewhat confused, asked for elaboration.

Shinwari said that one of Allah's 99 traits was anger, and said that "If you're dealing with a bad person, it's wrong to be merciful."

That is not dissimilar to the message that Karzai's two chief competitors Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minster, and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister, are giving to the Afghan public.

Both Abdullah and Ghani have publicly accused Karzai of using state machinery to ensure his reelection. That is a charge Karzai and his election team deny.

"He cannot win without big fraud, without big rigging," Abdullah said in an interview. "If the results are stolen, then the country will go into crisis. He cannot be reelected through transparent credible elections. He cannot, that I am pretty sure."

Abdullah accused Karzai of deploying chiefs of police, governors, and ministers to campaign for him.

Asked whether he believed the accusations, Holbrooke replied, "I think that some of the things that the opposition is saying have merit," but cautioned that "those charges are made in every election as well -- media bias, use of government resources. In effect, that's part of the democracy that's going on here."

The U.S. Remains Neutra in Afghan Election

U.S. officials argue they have done well to separate themselves from Karzai and all of the candidates in trying to show they are not for or against any one of them. Ghani and Abdullah, who participated in Afghanistan's first ever debate last Thursday night (Karzai refused), both agreed the U.S. had done well to appear neutral.

Instead the U.S. has very publicly declared its willingness to help secure the election. The insurgency will keep as many as nine districts across southern Afghanistan from opening at all, according to Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission, and at least a dozen will be severely restricted.

The Independent Electoral Commission originally announced it would oversee 7,000 polling stations, but is planning on announcing a significantly reduced number after many of the stations are checked for security and viability. A few months ago the Interior Ministry promised it would defend the stations. Only this week, the ministry pulled out of that promise, frustrated Afghan election officials said.

For the U.S., the surge of troops in the south is designed to be complete before the election, so as to try and provide as much security as possible. NATO countries have also committed thousands of troops to defend voters.

In the long run, Abdullah and many Afghans argue that it is not U.S. troops that will create security across the south. It is development and creating job opportunities and increasing government capacity that will break the stalemate.

"Because of the failures of the national government, we are losing the people," Abdullah said. "And I believe that in an insurgency, if you lose the people, you lose the war."