Holbrooke: Astride the Khyber Pass
Why, when it comes to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, replacing Richard Holbrooke will be nearly impossible.
The job offer was suitably Holbrookean: I was standing in my kitchen in DuPont Circle about a year and half ago and the cell rang. On the other end an unmistakable voice boomed, "I’m calling from a plane flying from Riyadh to Washington. I want you to work for me. I land at Dulles in four hours. I need your answer by then." I mumbled something about needing to speak to my wife and my various bosses at CNN and the New America Foundation, and Ambassador Holbrooke quickly hung up. In the end the job offer never panned out, but I felt honored that Holbrooke had even considered it.
In a warren of rooms on the ground floor of the State Department over the past two years Holbrooke assembled a brilliant team from across the government to work on the knotty problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unusually, he also recruited outside experts to be part of this team. They included NYU professor Barnett "Barney" Rubin, arguably the world’s leading expert on Afghanistan; Vali Nasr, a preeminent authority on the Shia and the author of an important study of the founder of Pakistani Islamism, Abul Alaa Maududi; and Alexander Evans, a British diplomat who is deeply steeped in the history and politics of Pakistan’s troubled northwest, home to both the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Holbrooke didn’t hire people because they agreed with him, but because he valued their expertise. A visit to Holbrooke’s State Department office, lined with photos of his years in Vietnam and his many other postings, would often turn it into a freewheeling and argumentative discussion about what was going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan with anybody and everybody who walked through his door. These discussions would be constantly interrupted by calls from the White House or various foreign dignitaries or Holbrooke leaping up from his desk to consult classified maps of Taliban areas of control. It was enormous fun to be around him.
Holbrooke came to his job as the president’s representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan having thought deeply about the region for many years before the job was offered to him. He had traveled to Afghanistan a number of times as a private citizen in the years he was working as an investment banker at Perseus and his conclusions about those trips would then turn up in his regular monthly columns for the Washington Post. In his capacity as chairman of the Asia Society, several months before Obama took office Holbrooke assembled a group of experts on Afghanistan and national security (including myself) to write a public report about what he knew would be the leading foreign policy challenge of the next administration. He tasked Barney Rubin to be the lead pen.
A key recommendation of the Asia Society report was to move the U.S. government away from the counterproductive poppy eradication policy it had pursued under George W. Bush in Afghanistan. The eradication approach created enemies, since the farmers who had their crops destroyed were generally the poorer ones who couldn’t pay the bribes to have their fields left alone. Those farmers proved easy recruits to the Taliban cause. The U.S. government was, in short, deeply committed to an unsuccessful drug policy that helped its enemies. This had long been a theme of Holbrooke’s and when he entered the government he halted U.S. support for eradication and emphasized instead that the measure of a successful counternarcotics policy was not hectares of poppy destroyed every year, but hectares of other crops planted.
Holbrooke also was instrumental in tripling the numbers of civilians working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan and helping to set up parallel Special Representatives to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAPs) for many of the NATO countries contributing to the effort in Afghanistan. Holbrooke also shepherded the regular strategic dialogues in Washington between U.S. cabinet officials and their Pakistani counterparts, aiming to create a deeper and long-lasting strategic partnership with Pakistan that would assuage Pakistani concerns (somewhat justified) that Washington is a fair-weather friend. And he worked prodigiously to help the victims of the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history, the floods of this past summer.
Replacing a man as sui generis as Richard Holbrooke will be impossible, but as Obama looks for his successor as his representative to the region there are few plausible candidates of sufficient stature who understand the complex issues and players in South Asia. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan American diplomat who served as Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan is one, in particular because he has a good rapport with Karzai. Another is the current ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, who has served two tours in Afghanistan as a senior military officer including as the commanding general in 2006 and who has spent a total of four years living in Afghanistan, and finally there is Anne Patterson who recently stepped down as ambassador in Pakistan after a well-regarded three-year stint.
According to a senior U.S. official, there is no "Plan B floating around" as yet about who might be appointed to Holbrooke’s position and for the moment Holbrooke’s able deputy Frank Ruggiero, a diplomat with a great deal of experience on the ground in Kandahar, will be the acting SRAP.
Whoever is appointed to continue Holbrooke’s legacy will face a daunting set of challenges: Getting Pakistan to give up its tolerance or support for the Haqqani Network, Lashkar e-Taiba and the Quetta shura; nudging top Afghan politicians to deliver more to their constituents and to keep their hands out of the till; reducing the amount of money sloshing around the U.S. contracting system that ends up in the coffers of insurgents and warlords, and setting the parameters for some kind of negotiations with "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban. Holbrooke was so much the man for those very tough jobs.
I first met Ambassador Holbrooke at his spacious and well-appointed apartment on Central Park West around seven years ago. It was an intimidating dinner party group that featured a bevy of billionaires including George Soros and colleagues from the New America Foundation: Noah Feldman, Jim Fallows, Michael Lind and Ted Halstead. Holbrooke and his wonderful wife, the author Kati Marton, could not have been more hospitable and more charming and what might have been a somewhat stilted evening turned into a discussion that lasted long into the night. Holbrooke quizzed all of us in great detail about our various fields of expertise and even referred to books we had written, making us all feel as if our work was important; he had a great gift for that.
I was in Kabul when the news of Richard’s serious condition first started to circulate this past weekend. Everyone who knew him just could not believe that this force of nature was so incapacitated. When the news of his death was announced one of his many friends and colleagues in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul emailed to say simply: "We lost one of the greats." Indeed.