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Diplomat Gone Rogue

Left: In Afghanistan, shortly before being fired; Right: Campaigning in Brattleboro with Matt Dunne, Democratic candidate for governor of Vermont.  

“I still want to do useful things,” Peter Galbraith explains. He says he wants to help build in Vermont a publicly funded health-care system, for instance, as a model for the nation. But his policy ideas seem preliminary, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that even a fledgling political career is, for Galbraith, simply the best of the available options, and that his mind is still in Afghanistan.

The night before I left, Galbraith had his brother, a few friends, and me over for dinner. It was a boozy meal that started pleasantly and turned grim, when Galbraith and his assistant Tracey Brinson—who had accompanied him to Afghanistan and stayed there after he left—took turns telling what is for Galbraith the emblematic story of Afghanistan, which is the attack on the Bakhtar guesthouse.

Just before dawn on October 28, 2009, Galbraith said, after he’d left the country and a week before the scheduled runoff election, a group of Taliban fighters dressed as Afghan police arrived at the guesthouse in Kabul that housed U.N. election staff. They climbed a fence and began to lob grenades inside. Two security men—one a former U.S. Navy commando named Louis Maxwell—fought them off from the roof for the better part of an hour, permitting most of the U.N. staff to escape, though several were injured and eight people were killed. After the fight was over and the courtyard secured, Maxwell walked outside of the compound, where he was shot dead, likely by a member of the Afghan police.

The event was depressing in all aspects—the U.N. initially reported that Maxwell had been killed by Taliban, until a German magazine obtained a video of the incident. But to Galbraith it seemed to make plain the folly of a counterinsurgency strategy. “It is impossible to separate the Taliban and the government,” Galbraith said over dinner. “They are the same thing. Without a credibly elected government, there is no place for a tribal leader to go to rat out a Taliban commander. And so a counterinsurgency strategy has no hope.”

At the end of this year, while the U.N. is reviewing Galbraith’s wrongful-termination claim, President Obama will be conducting a review of the Afghanistan surge he authorized last fall. The administration is now spending billions of dollars to build an Afghan state—placing advisers in the ministries, recruiting and counseling judges, organizing and training an army, all the while partnering with a government it suspects is corrupt. To Galbraith, this is the same kind of strategy that failed the Bush administration in Iraq: a quasi-colonial insistence on holding together a country by will alone. And so another form of idealism had supplanted his own.

“You cannot impose on people your own wants,” Galbraith says vigorously, “no matter how much you yourself might want them.” He meant this as a policy lesson, but it is hard not to infer a second meaning, one he missed: that he himself could not impose on the West his own conviction that a principle was at stake, no matter how keenly he felt it.