Afghan strategy review goes on without Holbrooke; Ruggiero now acting SRAP

Afghan strategy review goes on without Holbrooke; Ruggiero now acting SRAP

In a two hour meeting in the White House situation room on Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama reviewed the results of the latest Afghan strategy review, meant to assess progress but specifically not make any policy recommendations on the war effort. A public statement on the war will be coming on Thursday.

One new face at the meeting was Frank Ruggiero, the new acting head of the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP). That post was left vacant by the untimely death on Monday evening of Richard Holbrooke.

Ruggiero "will lead the SRAP structure that Richard Holbrooke constructed, and will really serve as one of his finest legacies, assisted by two deputies, Dan Feldman and Vikram Singh," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Crowley also added some clarity to the reports on Monday that Holbrooke’s last words were a call to end the war in Afghanistan. Actually, Crowley explained, Holbrooke was conversing with his medical team and made a remark about the war as part of his banter.

"I’ve consulted with a number of folks who were in the room. There was a lengthy exchange with Ambassador Holbrooke and the medical team, probably reflecting Richard’s relentless pursuit of the policy that he had helped to craft and was charged by the president and the secretary with carrying out," Crowley explained. 

"At one point the medical team said, ‘You’ve got to relax.’ And Richard said, ‘I can’t relax; I’m worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan.‘ And then after some additional exchanges, the medical team finally said, ‘We’ll you know what, we’ll try to fix this challenge while you’re undergoing surgery.’ And [Holbrooke] said, ‘Yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war.’"

Whether Ruggiero, who previously served as the top civilian in southern Afghanistan and the head of the bureau of political-military affairs, will be named permanent SRAP, is yet to be determined.

Holbrooke’s absence loomed large over this morning’s Afghan strategy review meeting, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"At the beginning of the meeting, President Obama and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton reaffirmed the great debt that the administration and the American people owe to Richard Holbrooke and noted the extraordinary expressions of respect for Ambassador Holbrooke’s life demonstrated the legacy that he’s built over 50 years of service to his country," said Gibbs.

The president will present the findings of the Afghan strategy review review on Thursday to the American people, Gibbs said, but has ordered his team to keep working on it into 2011.

Gibbs noted that it won’t contain any shocking revelations and will not change the plan to begin removing troops and transitioning control to Afghan forces in July 2011 with the goal of being out of Afghanistan by 2014.

"I doubt there will be, in all honesty, a lot of surprise at what the review lays out," he said. "I think you will see… that there has been some important progress in halting the momentum of the Taliban in Afghanistan, we have seen through counterterrorism success at degrading senior al-Qaida leaders, and we’ve seen greater cooperation over the course of the past 18 months with the Pakistani government."

"You also see in the review an enumeration of the continued challenges that we have in that region," Gibbs predicted. "They will focus on a few different areas, but clearly we have to continue to strengthen capacity inside of Afghanistan. And we still have the ongoing challenge and threat of safe havens in Pakistan."

The other officials at the meeting included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Director of the Office of Management and Budget Jack Lew, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice (via videoconference), National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Leon Panetta, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, (via videoconference), Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright, Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry (via videoconference), Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter (via videoconference), U.S. Central Command Commander General James Matties, ISAF Commander General David Petraeus (via videoconference), NSS Coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan Doug Lute, NSS Senior Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan John Tien, and Biden’s National Security Advisor Tony Blinken.

A public memorial service for Holbrooke is being tentatively planned in Washington for mid-January 2011. The State Department is asking the public to direct all condolence messages to Faxes can be sent to (202) 647-4142. The mailing address is: S/SRAP, 2201 C Street, NW, Room 1517, Washington, DC 20520.