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Afghanistan Envoy Holbrooke Dies

Richard Holbrooke was hailed as a diplomat and a fighter.(ARMIN WEIGEL/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Dan  Friedman
December 13, 2010

Updated at 8:01 a.m. on December 14.

Richard Holbrooke, a veteran U.S. diplomat whose long career included brokering the Dayton Peace Accords among warring factions in Bosnia in 1995 and serving as the nation’s top envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, has died.

Holbrooke, 69, died Monday evening after emergency surgery at George Washington University Hospital to repair a torn aorta. He collapsed Friday during a meeting at the State Department.


Just hours before his death, President Obama commemorated the diplomat at a State Department reception attended by Holbrooke's family.

"Richard Holbrooke has been serving this nation with distinction for nearly 50 years -- from a young foreign service officer in Vietnam to the architect of the accords that ended the slaughter in the Balkans, to advancing our regional efforts as our Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and countless crises and hot spots in between," Obama said. "He is simply one of the giants of American foreign policy."

As special U.S. representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke was the top U.S. civilian involved in the war effort in Afghanistan. He began his career in 1963 as junior Foreign Service officer in the early days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Holbrooke rose through the foreign policy ranks, gaining a reputation as a tough negotiator and an arrogant, sharp-elbowed in-fighter who some found hard to work with. Many observers thought he should have won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work devising the complicated Dayton Peace deal following an ethic conflict resulting from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

President George H. W. Bush once called Holbrooke "the most persistent advocate I've ever run into." In a statement Monday evening, Vice President Joseph Biden described Holbrooke as "a great friend" and called him "a tireless negotiator, a relentless advocate for American interests, and the most talented diplomat we’ve had in a generation."

Holbrooke was perhaps the best-known member of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment. Twice, he just missed becoming secretary of State. In 1997, President Bill Clinton considered Holbrooke to replace outgoing Secretary Warren Christopher, but ultimately chose Madeleine Albright. In 2000, many considered Holbrooke a likely choice for the post if Vice President Al Gore won the presidency.

In a varied career, Holbrooke served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany and was the only person to serve as assistant secretary of State for both Asia, from 1977 to 1981, and Europe, from 1994 to 1996. He worked as a magazine editor, a Peace Corps official, an investment banker, and a professor and authored numerous articles and books.

But Holbrooke was a mostly a diplomat. Born in New York to non-practicing Jewish parents, he entered the Foreign Service in 1962 after graduating from Brown University. He has said his decision reflected advice from Dean Rusk, later secretary of State under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whose son attended high school with Holbrooke in Scarsdale, N.Y. 

After learning the language, Holbrooke went to Vietnam. He worked in the Mekong Delta for the Agency for International Development before joining the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. There, he was part of a group of young diplomats who later gained senior positions, including John Negroponte, Anthony Lake, and Les Aspin. 

Holbrooke later worked with a team of Vietnam experts in the Johnson White House. He was part of the U.S. delegation to the 1968 Paris Peace talks and helped write a volume of the secret Pentagon Papers describing U.S. decisions in Vietnam, which were later leaked.

In the 1970s, Holbrooke worked in Morocco before leaving government to work as managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

In 1976, he moved into Democratic Party politics, working as a national security adviser to Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. After Carter’s win, Holbrooke became assistant secretary of State for East Asian and pacific affairs, the top U.S. official overseeing diplomacy in Asia.

Holbrooke’s first European job was ambassador to Germany in 1993, a key post a few years after East and West Germany unified. Promoted to assistant secretary for European and Canadian affairs, in 1994, Holbrooke was soon overseeing U.S. efforts to negotiate a peace deal in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The Dayton Accords, which Holbrooke was widely credited with devising, involved a highly specific division of the territory of the former Bosnia and Herzegovina between Bosnians and ethnic Serbians and Croatian who had battled in a bloody and ethnically based conflict that ended following a successful offensive by the Croats and NATO intervention.

Holbrooke became ambassador to the United Nations in 1999. After Gore’s defeat, Holbrooke left government again, but advised the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Holbrooke, a longtime confidant of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was given the job as special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2009, a difficult position in which he reportedly struggled to work top U.S. military officials and with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Always known for closely monitoring his coverage in the media, Holbrooke was incensed at recent reporting on his relationship with Karzai.

"I was not the problem," he told National Journal in a December 3 interview. "I was carrying out American policy, which was to have an honest election. Karzai didn't like that message. It was then said I was on the outs with Karzai. The very people who were having fun with me over the issue were the ones criticizing him."

"The reason Karzai got unhappy with me briefly was because of the very intense discussion we had. But no one walked out," Holbrooke said.

When Republicans held the White House, Holbrooke had stints on Wall Street and government consulting. He was a senior adviser to Lehman Brothers in the 1980s and founded a Washington D.C. consulting firm. From 2001 to 2008, Holbrooke was the vice chairman of Perseus LLC, a private equity firm. 

He co-authored the memoirs of Clark Clifford, former Defense Secretary and advisor to several Democratic presidents, which was published in 1991.

Holbrooke leaves a wife, Kati Marton, whom he married in 1995, and two sons.

CORRECTION: The original version of this report misspelled the name of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

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