Richard Holbrooke's Death Leaves a Diplomatic Void in Troubled Region

The ambassador to Afghanistan, Pakistan was the first to play this role.

December 14, 2010, 11:29 AM

Dec. 14, 2010— -- Richard Holbrooke, a titan of American diplomacy, wasn't always a popular figure in the two countries where he was tasked to work, but the late diplomat's sudden death has left a void at a time that the U.S. struggles with an increasingly violent war in Afghanistan and a tense relationship with Pakistan's military.

Holbrooke, perpetually in motion and never one to hold his tongue, was not the most popular diplomat among Afghan and Pakistani officials.

In a culture where much depends on formal displays of respect, the U.S. diplomat rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and, to a certain extent, never recovered from initial setbacks.

The Pakistani army chief once refused to meet with Holbrooke because of public criticism of the ISI, the country's shadowy intelligence agency. Even over the last few days, he was derisively referred to in stories planted in the press as a "native Jew from New York."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Holbrooke once had the diplomatic equivalent of a blowout over the 2009 presidential elections. Their relationship never recovered -- Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were called to negotiate with Karzai when required.

In the United States, there was also a sense that Holbrooke wasn't able to speed up the relatively slow progress on the civilian front.

But among Pakistani President Zardari's aides and U.S. officials in both countries -- who had their own personal issues with Holbrooke -- there is a sense that they have lost a tireless advocate for their work and for the people of the region.

Holbrooke was the first U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, in charge of not only leading the civilian strategy in the region but also serving as a broker between the two countries which often harbor deep resentments against each other.

"It's essential to have someone playing a bridging role, certainly between Afghanistan and Pakistan and it would be even better if that person's portfolio allowed them to try to find an opportunity for coordination," said Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Having somebody who is sitting in Washington playing a coordinating role is fundamental ... and the last administration saw the perils of not having that. … You see things that are not connected and that's the downside."

Holbrooke was, in the words of one U.S. official, a "force for progress" in Afghanistan and Pakistan who prodded and pushed and received permission to vastly increase resources. Embassies in both countries have grown extensively since Holbrooke became the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and are currently undergoing $1.6 billion worth of physical renovations.

That civilian surge was accompanied by something equally as important: an attempt to bring the often-bickering U.S. agencies and departments working on the Af-Pak region under one roof. That was so unusual, it was deemed "innovative," by one U.S. official. It didn't always work, but Holbrooke was the first to try, and there is evidence he made positive strides on disrupting the financing of terrorism, in particular.

Holbrooke's Death Leaves Void in Af-Pak Strategy

Despite his brashness, Holbrooke believed in helping the governments rather than working around them. He rode roughshod over USAID contracts given to expensive Western firms, forcefully trying to deliver them to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government bodies instead.

"He helped lay the solid foundation for a broad-based relationship based on mutual respect, trust and interest," said Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi in a statement today. "His sudden passing away has left a huge vacuum."

Holbrooke's last words to his doctor was, "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

"He always wanted to make sure he got the last word," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said today. "And secondly, it just showed how he was singularly focused on pursuing and advancing the... process and the policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring them to a successful conclusion."

The State Department on Monday said one of Holbrooke's deputies, Frank Ruggiero, who until recently was the senior civilian in Kandahar (and was the U.S. official featured by the WikiLeaks cables in two meetings with Ahmed Wali Karzai), will serve as the acting head. The agency wouldn't comment beyond that on who might replace the former diplomat.

Given Holbrooke's sudden death and the lack of experts in the region, it could take some time to determine his long-term replacement.

Anne Patterson, who served as ambassador to Pakistan for three years from 2007, is well acquainted with the region. Patterson was a well-regarded diplomat in Pakistan but she hasn't been without her share of controversy.

In any case, whoever succeeds Holbrooke is likely to face a slew of daunting challenges in a region dominated by political strife and social upheaval.

"This (role of special representative) was a creation of Holbrooke for Holbrooke," Markey said. "It was something that fit him and it fit him because he created it and so whoever comes next would have to engage in some revision because it won't be a perfect fit. A lot of the individuals who were assembled for that office -- some from inside government, many from outside of government -- were people who were in many cases hand-selected by Holbrooke so this all bears his imprint and that will be a challenge for anybody who will be attempting to fill his shoes afterward."

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