Do we remember what we have heard or what we wanted to hear? Famous last words are tricky. Even strangers can get infected with nerves at the bedside of a dying man, not least because evidence of mortality induces depressing thoughts of your own inevitable departure. Relatives and friends are too affected by sentiment. Assuming that the deathbed utterance, if there is one, is more likely to be a mumble rather than oratory, the opportunity for tweaking is high, either in the interest of clarity or to improve the quality. Did Groucho Marx really say, “Die, my dear? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do!”? Or Conrad Hilton, founder of the eponymous hotel chain, depart on the less-than-grand note of “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub”. The great Italian traveller sounds far more credible: “I have not told half of what I saw.” As does the brilliant Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.” Such pitch perfect sentences seem edited by a benefactor for an anthology, which is where I have picked them from.
But of course the words survive because they are in character. The billionaire Hilton must have been obsessing about his hotel guests mucking up the bathroom; Groucho could hardly have resisted one last crack, or Thomas one last idle boast about the addiction that destroyed his talent.
Did Richard Holbrooke, the peripatetic czar of America’s policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, really tell a Pakistani-origin doctor, as he went for the final surgery, “End that Afghanistan war”? Or did the Pakistani doctor, who has watched his country pay such a corrosive political, social and military price for conflicts imposed upon Afghanistan by the strategic interests of superpowers, hear what he wanted to hear?
Holbrooke was the sort of man who took no prisoners in his day job and dominated the room when off duty. His fascinating official career began in Vietnam, paused for a stint as editor of Foreign Affairs and would have ended as the peace-broker of Bosnia if his friend and mentor Hillary Clinton had not given him diplomatic charge of America’s latest war zone. He would have occupied her present office if Hillary had won the White House. While Holbrooke roamed the world, there was one indisputable theme in whatever he said or did: the American interest came first. He was a classical New York, liberal patriot.
Did he believe, therefore, that it was now in the American interest to stop the war? During the two years of his intensive engagement he had — much to the dismay of Delhi — bought into Pakistan’s version of events. He became an advocate of Islamabad’s “strategic depth” theory and put as much pressure as he could on Delhi to withdraw troops from the Line of Control so that Pakistan could shift its own forces towards its western front. He was the principal voice within the Obama administration urging the largesse that Pakistan has received in the last two years. George Bush was far more circumspect while signing cheques. Pakistanis fondly recall his role in the massive relief effort after this year’s floods, when he personally took charge of distribution. [If Holbrooke was present he was automatically in charge.] But he would not want an end to the war if peace was primarily for Pakistan’s well-being.
War is not a continuous activity; there are long fallow periods between battles, even in a guerrilla war. The Afghan is in one of its fallow periods but it cannot end until one side accepts defeat or both sides agree on a ceasefire. America and Vietnam, uniquely, began peace talks without a ceasefire, so there is more than one model for termination of hostilities. Holbrooke was aware that, in a completely unstructured manner, a similar attempt was underway. This unacknowledged process has thrown up absurdities like the “Taliban” leader who was flown into Kabul by British intelligence for talks, before they discovered that he was a fake, nothing more than a provincial shopkeeper. Someone in ISI is probably still dining out on the true story. It is the sort of episode that makes Groucho Marx’s last words relevant.
Somewhere in his ebbing consciousness, and perhaps rising conscience, Holbrooke knew that the Afghan war had begun as the right thing to do, but been driven into an abyss by mistakes. It was time for America to cut its losses, financial and political, and deal with the aftermath as best it could. I wonder if Holbrooke had time to tell his Pakistani friends that it would be a dangerous mistake if they rushed into space created by American withdrawal. Afghan nationalism is as hard as the Himalayan rock of its mountains.
It does make one wonder what George Bush’s last words might be. Perhaps: Continue that war!