Some common messages emerged: Many Afghans specifically blamed Pakistan and its intelligence service, known as the ISI, for funding the Taliban insurgency; they criticized the Karzai government’s corruption; and they lauded Holbrooke’s pet project for sharply boosting aid to Afghanistan’s agricultural sector.
The Afghanistan visit was an unusual exercise in strategic listening for a superpower that during the Bush years treated communications strategy as a problem of talking more loudly. It was especially interesting to see Holbrooke in listening mode. “Give us advice on reconciliation with the Taliban,” he implored the religious leaders. “What other suggestions do you have?” he asked the tribal chiefs.
The upbeat tour was deceptive, in a way, in its suggestion that Afghanistan’s problems can be fixed by more open talk. An illustration of how hard it will be to turn the war around comes in a security map displayed in Atmar’s office. Districts where the insurgency poses a high threat are colored in red; those that are enemy controlled are black. There is an arc of nearly unbroken red and black across the southern half of the country, where more than half the population lives.