Posted by: Christian | June 17, 2009

Holbrooke to Pashtun father: “I would like to dishonor your daughter”

Nice work Holbrooke. Via WaPo, h/t BruceR:

U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, red-faced and sweaty, sat on the dirt floor of a stifling tent as Aslam Khan, a 38-year-old laborer, spoke haltingly of his family’s panicked flight from a Pakistani army offensive against Taliban forces in their mountain village, three hours north of here.

Holbrooke asked some questions about the Taliban but got few answers. “Are these all your children?” he asked with a smile. Yes, Khan said, he had nine.

Your daughter is beautiful,” Holbrooke continued, nodding toward a young woman who sat quietly at the edge of the family. Her head was covered in a royal-blue scarf that revealed only her stunningly dark eyes.

“That’s not my daughter,” Khan said abruptly.

Yeah that’s what you should do, tell rural Pashtun men that you’d like to take their daughter for a test drive, which is basically what Holbrooke did. Turns out she wasn’t his daughter, but the effect was to tell the man if that was his daughter he would have enthusiastically disrespected the man and dishonored his family.

I agree with BruceR, who has definitely spent some time with rural Pashtuns:

You know, if there is somewhere a list of things you don’t use as conversational openers with Pashtun and other conservative Muslim males, I’m pretty sure “how fetching their daughter is” would be pretty high up there.

You can find more great insights from BruceR, a recently returned Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team member (I’m told the acronym is pronounced “omelette”) who served in Kandahar province with the Canadians, on his blog “flit.”


  1. I’m really, really glad I’m not the only one who noticed this. I thought “nah, I’m not gonna write anything about it because it’ll look like I’m picking nits,” but it really did jump out at me that this was probably a wildly inappropriate thing to say in those circumstances.

  2. Facepalm.

    I had high hopes for Holbrooke.

  3. Oh dear.

  4. It’s not just rural Pashtuns, right? I’ve just been reading Mansoor’s BAGHDAD AT SUNRISE (and a few other things, so maybe it’s jumbled in my head) but I think it was him who said one of the rules is don’t comment on the women. I mean, I haven’t been out of the midwest for ages, and even I know that. Well, now I know it.

  5. Just to make it clear: I think Holbrooke is a jerk and a dinosaur. But I do want him to succeed as his failure would be everybody’s failure.

  6. lol. Seriously, though, it shouldnt be that fckin hard to make such a list?

  7. fnord,

    yeah, there should be a short list a stupid things not to do or say. but shouldn’t he just know that anyways?

  8. “charlieford,”

    I agree with you. I wouldn’t say this anywhere outside of my comfort zone of countries.

  9. Wow–though I can’t imagine that in a different setting, saying that to a protective mother would be a lot better…

  10. It’s almost like there was this Army program that was designed to prevent these kinds of ridiculous mistakes no one should every make in this area, even visiting dignitaries. I dunno, though — that wouldn’t make much sense would it.

    You’d think that maybe sometime during his chairmanship of the Asian society Holbrooke could have learned that you do NOT comment on someone’s daughter, pretty much outside of the U.S., ever. Ever.

    Argh. Where the hell are his 20 staffers when you need them? Where’s Jared Cohen?

  11. […] Stupid. […]

  12. Maybe she was just so alluring he couldn’t contain himself? I can imagine Holbrooke looking a bit like George on Seinfeld, trying to keep a secret, sweating and shifting and suddenly jumping up and shouting “YOUR DAUGHTER IS BEAUTIFUL!!! There, I said it!”

  13. Un-Effing Believable!

  14. It’s actually “Operational Mentor and Liaison Team,” fwiw.

  15. Christoper,

    Thanks, I made the correction. flit has an -ing in there, so I added that as well.

  16. Christian: If no such list exists, it should be made pronto, not for Holbrooke but for the troops coming in from Iraq. “A short cultural primer” sounds like a good project for a scientist, no? (hint hint)

  17. “yeah, there should be a short list a stupid things not to do or say. ”

    Joe Biden is the VP. You think you’re getting away with a list you could call short ?

  18. There is generally a list of the top 10 cultural “do not do’s” for anyone deploying. From memory, Holbrooke’s little faux pas is the one which is underlined and bolded, and probably in red…with big bloody stars next to it. Cultural primers are plentiful (though many are not ideal) – its whether people pay attention to them or not that matters. Maybe he’d been watching the Blues Brothers restaurant scene the night before…

  19. This comes close to male visitors to Kuwait holding hands outstretched to shake the hand of female studemts or employees……why do these people not get clued up on the culture before they visit us. It was like my Romanian colleague two days ago who gave me a huge hug on my last day at work- if my husband had seen him, he would be a dead Romanian now…..:)

  20. Yep, you really can’t pas much more faux than that without actually causing serious bodily harm or death.

    You would expect that someone would have briefed him in on that thoroughly, wouldn’t you? The George from Seinfeld concept may hold water, but that trait isn’t well suited to diplomacy.

    Shades of a book I read once in my teens about unlovely Americans unfamiliar with local courtesies.

  21. Well he might have redeemed himself by continuing

    “Some people will pay a lot of money for that information; but then your daughter would lose a father, instead of gaining a husband…..wait a sec…you said she wasn’t your…um…never mind”

  22. I really loved the discussion, guys, but the “girl” was a plainclothes Pakistani officer (IB perhaps?). Otherwise, all or many of the points made here are valid, just not for this case. Holbrooke was trying to make it clear to everyone he hated a conversation that could never be a genuine exchange of views and opinion.


    “After an awkward silence, the woman explained that she was a Pakistani police officer. It was unclear whether she was there to protect Holbrooke from the refugees, or to monitor what they told him.”

  23. Top of the story for vividness and immediacy we get:

    Red faced and sweaty …


    At least rule out the possibility that Karen DeYoung, staff writer, is attempting a Kit Seelye hit piece (Al Gore-Love Canal) path to career advancement.

    He said this in English? Did the Father speak English? DeYoung was in the tent?

  24. edit: Kit Seelye s/b Ceci Connolly. They all look alike in print.

  25. So, Peter, are you saying he was being sarcastic?

    I was going to say that I think it just isn’t possible that anyone with as much cross-cultural experience as he could have failed to know that that’s not kosher, and I don’t think he’s just an oaf, so I’m wondering if jet-lag or illness could be the culprit? I don’t want to make excuses where none are deserved, but this is just too mysterious.

  26. Charileford,

    Yes, I think the remark was sarcastic. Of course I was not there, but as I imagine the situation, they had just arrived at the camp, standing there faced with thousands of tents set up for the displaced. Now Holbrooke may have wondered which tent to enter, but perhaps his escort directed him very specifically to one of the tents.

    Or, if the tent they visited wasn’t preselected, he might have noticed how the “good girl” of the Pashtun father was perhaps rushing into the tent after them.

    Also, how is a “Your daughter is very nice, how much” sort of comment, supposedly making Holbrooke look silly, enough to get an undercover police officer to reveal her identity to a foreign diplomat, after a couple of seconds of awkward silence? Holbrooke might have been looking at the officer-girl in such a way as to leave no doubt what he was thinking.

  27. Péter, we can rest assured that Holbrooke is not that cunning. He made remarks like that in Bosnia, they just didn’t matter as much there. The man in a walking blunderbuss.

  28. Anon,

    I’m no personal fan of Richard Holbrooke. But I don’t consider him an idiot, either. And in the kind of situation I tried to describe above, in my view it doesn’t take much cunning to say something like that. Probably not saying anything, just staring, could have been enough as well.

    Instead of just staring, he made a Pakistani citizen say something that probably was not welcome by his country’s security services. Which he may or may not be comfortable with.

  29. Bottom Line: Never Ever comment about a man’s female family in Afghanistan.

    This is not the first idiotic thing Holbrooke did in the region. He should never have been appointed for “AfPak” and he certainly should be fired, but then, Obama himself set the stage for idiocy in the region with his first visit and disrespect for Karzai, and his campaign trail calls for attacking Pakistan.

    No, this is not going away and Obama is simply making it worse, as is Holbrooke, particularly as he called for the installation of a “counterweight” by the US in Afghanistan.

    If only O demonstrated the same “neutrality” for a democratic ally as he does when a tyrannical dictatorship enemy murders its own citizens (Iran).


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