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The Legacies of an American Diplomat

Richard Holbrooke, US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, takes part in a discussion on International security with German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (not in picture) hosted by the newspaper "Passauer Neuen Presse" in the southern German city of Passau on 12 November 2010.
Richard Holbrooke, US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, takes part in a discussion on International security with German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (not in picture) hosted by the newspaper "Passauer Neuen Presse" in the southern German city of Passau on 12 November 2010.
Richard Holbrooke, US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, takes part in a discussion on International security with German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (not in picture) hosted by the newspaper "Passauer Neuen Presse" in the southern German city of Passau on 12 November 2010.
Richard Holbrooke

Towards the end of December, President Barak Obama held the long awaited Afghan war review, just a few days after Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had passed away. Assessing the prospects of American engagement in Afghanistan, the report highlighted “improvements” in the position of NATO forces. The fragile gains it identified, however, did little to eclipse the questions about America’s strategy in the future. With Holbrooke gone and growing doubts about success in the war, efforts at constructing a sound strategy in the Af-Pak region look increasingly complicated.

Holbrooke—whose imprint on American history cannot be underestimated—was much more than a career diplomat. Rather, he was a hybrid negotiator/anthropologist. He understood the nuances of specific conflicts as best as anyone could. He was convincing—whether being charming or heavy handed. More than most, Holbrooke seemed to have a natural ability to estimate the opportunity costs of the adversaries he tried to placate. He knew how to use such knowledge to his advantage. Rather than relying on briefs, he was notorious for seeking out the opinions of locals, a research practice he undertook early on in his career.

An editor of Foreign Policy magazine, an academic, a Peace Corps official, an investment banker, and the only person to have been named the Assistant Secretary of State for two regions, the Near East and South Asia in addition to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke’s career was filled with more successes than one lifetime usually accounts for. Although he never became Secretary of State or received the Nobel Peace Prize (he was runner-up for both), his successes as a diplomat significantly shaped America’s influence internationally; perhaps more than most other secretaries of state have in the past.

From Vietnam to Bosnia, Holbrooke had made himself indispensable to the US government. It was his ability to remain at the forefront of the most sensitive questions of American foreign policy, since the end of the Cold War, which set him apart from the rest. Despite his multiple contributions to diplomacy during the last fifty years, he will probably be most remembered for the influence he had on the war in Afghanistan as a special envoy to the region— a post he acquired in January 2009.

As the man responsible for directing the civilian side of the war, Holbrooke had limited sway over the military strategies that were put in place. Yet he did the best he could to compliment the deficiencies he perceived in these strategies. Particularly, he was of the mindset that a military victory there was impossible, even though this had been the government’s primary approach to the war.

Instead, he supported Vice President Joe Biden’s skepticism about military engagement in Afghanistan, and did not believe that if the Taliban took control of the country, in the future, Al-Qaeda would follow. Left with his civilian mandate, at the top of his agenda for pacifying Afghanistan was an understanding that security problems there could not be solved without addressing Pakistan. Inextricably linked as these two countries were, Holbrooke was often perceived by Afghanis as favoring Pakistani interest.

Resentment towards Holbrooke in Afghanistan originated first from his constant emphasis on ending corruption in the country. He wanted Karzai to end the bribes that plague the Afghan government, and he insisted on ending the harvesting of opium crops, which funded the work of insurgents on the ground. Unfortunately, these aims did little to win him the good graces of impoverished farmers who had seen a fall in wheat prices, and ultimately the heroin black market was unaffected by his efforts.

In Pakistan, Holbrooke’s policies were seen under a more positive light. After insisting to Congress that Pakistan’s democracy depended on significant development aid, he secured Congressional support. Less to Pakistan’s liking, Holbrooke did everything in his power to convince the government that hosting members of the Taliban and their affiliates, including the Haqqani network, immeasurably undermined Pakistan’s stability.

According to Christopher Dickey of Newsweek, Holbrooke’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan rubbed some people the wrong way, but Afghans and Pakistanis respected “the man for his directness and his honesty. Holbrooke never tried to mislead anyone by delivering one message in one country and a conflicting line in another.” Although Afghans may have respected him, responses to his death highlight that Afghanistan felt it was treated, by Holbrooke, less favorably than Pakistan. According to The Washington Post, while Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said his death had “left a huge vacuum,” Karzai’s legal advisor, Nasrullah Stanikzai noted that “his death will not have an impact on the situation in Afghanistan at all…[H]e was paying more attention to Pakistan and India rather than Afghanistan.”

Holbrooke was impervious to the flattery and criticism that came his way. Instead, he had a very clear understanding of his responsibilities as Special Representative—a title that he insisted differentiated him from an envoy. In a New Yorker interview with George Packer, made over a year ago, Holbrooke argued that “envoy’ is an elegant diplomatic word … I have nothing against it. It’s an honored and treasured word. It means envoi—you’re sent to do things. I was given a different task.” The difference between an envoy and a representative for Holbrooke, according to Packer, was that “in addition to being an emissary to the region, Holbrooke would run operations on the civilian side of American policy. He would create a rump regional bureau within the State Department … whose Afghanistan and Pakistan desks would report directly to him.”

The assertive nature exhibited in Holbrooke’s explanation of his post was hardly new. As a senior at Brown University in 1962, the future diplomat was torn between becoming editor of The New York Times or Secretary of State. He soon made up his mind when the newspaper did not offer him a position upon graduating. Instead, Holbrooke went to Vietnam as a special aide to two ambassadors. Before turning 30, he was a principle author of a chapter in the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret document which chronicled America’s military involvement in Vietnam. He would then become Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs, under former President Jimmy Carter, and Ambassador to Germany under former President Bill Clinton. The pinnacle of his career came in 1995, when he was able to bring all sides in the Bosnia conflict to the negotiating table.

As Chairman of the Global Business Coalition against AIDS, and as US ambassador to the UN, Holbrooke also made important strides in sensitizing the international community about the importance of addressing AIDS and other diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria. Needless to say, the positive impact he had on the lives of people around the world was unique.

As Press secretary Robert Gibbs noted, Holbrooke’s presence “will be sorely missed.” He was “a giant in foreign policy and is irreplaceable.”

Published: Monday 03 January 2011 Updated: Monday 03 January 2011

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