After Franklin Roosevelt died of a massive stroke on April 12, 1945, the New York Post led its daily list of “Army-Navy dead” with a simple entry: “Roosevelt, Franklin D., Commander-in-Chief.” It was “a gesture which would have moved the president,” historian William Manchester later wrote. Like FDR, Richard Holbrooke, who died this week, was a casualty of war who never fought on the battlefield. Whatever the proximate cause of the heart ailment that felled the famous diplomat, Holbrooke was under tremendous stress—pushing himself to negotiate a way out of what he knew could easily become a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan. His death, like his life, was all the more heroic for that reason.
The question now is whether Holbrooke’s absence as President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, or SRAP, will be a devastating blow to America’s Afghan strategy or whether his departure from the scene will have little more effect on the final outcome than hundreds of other heroic battlefield casualties.
For now, Holbrooke’s passing may not make much difference, at least while Gen. David Petraeus is still the point man for Afghan strategy. Petraeus’s preeminence was seen on Thursday, when the president unveiled a year-long assessment that, as expected, gave the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan until the end of 2014 to complete his counterinsurgency program. It is in the long run where Holbrooke will be most keenly missed, because it will require a master negotiator to really end this war and such people are as rare as —Richard Holbrooke.
At his death, Holbrooke was mainly acting as a troubleshooter, handling tetchy allies like the Pakistanis and promoting disaster relief during the recent floods, for instance, but deferring to the U.S. military commanders. Other high-level officials—such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates—have also been tending to the Pakistan and Afghanistan relationships. So Holbrooke’s position was always ill-defined, a chimera of mixed duties. He wasn’t only an envoy; by his own choice, he was deemed a “special representative” with powers to marshal government agencies—and yet he didn’t fully assume the chief coordinating role, either. That was also handled by Clinton, Gates, and Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan.
But if the “Af-Pak” strategy is to succeed down the line, a diplomat of Holbrooke’s stature and talent will become crucial. “He was the perfect person to help end this war,” says former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. “Because, right now, I don’t see that military victory is possible.… Therefore, it will end at the negotiating table. What is needed is a regional approach that works closely with Pakistan, India, Russia,” he said. “And Richard Holbrooke was just the person to engineer that kind of strategy.”
It was, in fact, a role that Holbrooke had mastered like no other diplomat: acting as broker between seemingly irreconcilable factions, engaging hostile interlocutors, and finding common ground despite long histories of enmity. He did it with the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians at Dayton in 1995 after NATO bombing brought them to the table. He did it again after Belgrade turned its guns on Kosovo.
Holbrooke’s combination of intimidation and flattery also bore fruit as U.N. ambassador, when he brought then-Sen. Jesse Helms and other conservative anti-U.N. senators together with other U.N. representatives to reform the organization’s budget as a way of appeasing the American Right.
Holbrooke was pushing for ways to sway the Taliban, too, prodding India (without much success) toward rapprochement with Pakistan and bringing in other Muslim nations, such as Malaysia. Before he even took the SRAP post, Holbrooke had tried to make Iran part of his portfolio as well, knowing that Tehran was an important regional player. He enthusiastically pressed for efforts to “support Afghan-led reconciliation” with the Taliban, calling the move “a major policy shift.” One irony of Holbrooke’s reported split with Afghan President Hamid Karzai is that the two men were on the same side on this issue.
But Holbrooke died before any of these plans could come to fruition. There are, at present, no serious talks of any kind going on in the Af-Pak theater, whether between the Taliban and the Afghan government or between nations. Beyond that, his big push behind the scenes to open negotiations with the Taliban has
appeared fruitless because of the revelation that an imposter had presented himself as a Taliban representative. As Holbrooke told me earlier this year: “Who the hell are you negotiating with? There is no Ho Chi Minh, or Milosevic, or somebody. No one at the top of the pyramid.”
Despite appointing a Holbrooke deputy, Frank Ruggiero, as a temporary successor, the administration has signaled some ambivalence about whether the SRAP job should continue. (Though State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, “The SRAP structure will carry on.”) In the end, it may well fall to Clinton or her successor to take over if there is a negotiated solution to the Afghan war. “This is a role for the secretary of State,” Burns says. Dick Holbrooke had always wanted to be, more than anything else, secretary of State. And now it could well be that only a secretary of State can fill his shoes.
N2K: Holbrooke, A Friend to Journalists
This article appears in the December 18, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.