News / USA

Holbrooke Death Leaves Vacuum at Center of Afghan Policy

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (file photo)
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (file photo)
Gary Thomas

The sudden death of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke comes at a crucial moment in U.S. policymaking in South Asia, just when the Obama Administration is wrapping up its review of strategy in Afghanistan. Holbrooke was at the center of piecing together a strategy and policy for Afghanistan and left his biggest challenges unfinished.

Richard Holbrooke was known in some circles as "the Bulldozer" because of his ability to get warring parties to sit down and settle their dispute.

Undoubtedly, his crowning achievement was the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia.  Through his relentless prodding and cajoling, an agreement was signed Dec. 14, 1995.  He died one day short of the 15th anniversary of that achievement.

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U.S. Army War College professor Larry Goodson says there were hopes that Holbrooke could bring those same skills to bear on the knotty interlocked problems of Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan. "A lot of people thought that the skill set that he demonstrated in regard to the Dayton Accords or at the United Nations - at several points in his career, but most especially with regard to Dayton - that those were the kinds of things that he could have brought or was bringing or might yet have brought to Afghanistan in a useful way," he said.

But could Holbrooke have brokered a peace deal in Afghanistan as he did in Dayton?  Not likely, says former deputy assistant secretary of state Teresita Schaffer.

"In the Balkans you could identify the three biggest thugs you could put into a room and butt heads.  In Afghanistan, there are far more moving parts than that, and I think he found this a real challenge.  I understand he said as much to other people.  So I don't know if he would have figured out a way of sort of forcing the issue.  But Afghanistan is notoriously resistance to forcing," she said.

Afghanistan is at something of a crossroads as the U.S. looks to begin withdrawing or at least redeploying some of its forces next year and increasingly hand over security responsibilities to Afghans.  But officials have said the training of those police and soldiers has been slow.  In addition, talk has been increasing of a political settlement between President Hamid Karzai and at least some elements of the Taliban.

Holbrooke could be dazzling or abrasive, according to published reports and political sources.  He is reported to have clashed with President Karzai, especially when Holbrooke pushed the Afghan leader to crack down on corruption, as well as with President Obama's then-national security advisor, James Jones.

In January, 2009, Holbrooke was named to the newly-created post of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It was an ill-defined job overseeing problems of immense complexity, but analysts say he made it his own.

Larry Goodson says what he called this "towering figure" was awkwardly caught between embassies in Kabul and Islamabad and reporting directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"I think that he had a certain latitude. But at the same time, I think that they were really building the structure of this as they went along because you have the Afghan mission [embassy], the Pakistan mission [embassy], and now you have this almost larger than anyone else figure of American diplomacy being given the responsibility to sort of do something kind of undefined in the middle," he said.

Teresita Schaffer says Holbrooke will be missed as he was the glue holding together much of the day-to-day mechanics of U.S. Afghan and Pakistani policy.

"I think the biggest impact of the loss of Holbrooke is actually going to be on the way the U.S. government organizes for this enterprise because he was such a dominant presence.  He controlled all assignments; he did resource allocation; he did resource mobilization; he pulled the policy process together.  And while I'm sure that a lot of that will all go on, there won't be one of these towering figures making it all happen," she said.

It is not known when a permanent replacement for the Special Representative post will be named.

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