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Richard Holbrooke: sudden void at a focal point of US foreign policy

Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy who took on America's toughest diplomatic challenges, was remembered as a 'champion in the cause of peace.'

By Staff writer / December 14, 2010

US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke visited the old city of Herat, Afghanistan, on Aug. 23, 2009. The death of Holbrooke leaves the US without a tough hand whose stature, tenacity, and extensive contacts allowed him to weave together once-separate diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Fradioon Pooya/AP/file

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Washington

President Obama concludes his review of the Afghanistan war this week without his special envoy on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. Richard Holbrooke, a brusque and outsize figure of US diplomacy best known for negotiating the accords that brought the 1990s Balkans war to a close, died Monday evening in a Washington hospital.

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The White House issued a long list of the military, diplomatic, and development officials to meet with Obama in the White House situation room on Tuesday. The absence of Mr. Holbrooke’s name suggests the president will have some bigger-than-life shoes to fill for the critical six months before a phased and “conditions-based” drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan is to begin in July.

As the president’s point man on the crucial civilian effort in what is now America’s longest war, Holbrooke butted heads with the likes of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leaders who chafed at the hard-knuckled diplomat’s demands for cleaner government, greater transparency, and service with the general population in mind.

President Obama called Holbrooke “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected.” Obama is to conclude his Afghanistan review with the Pentagon’s report on conditions on the ground later in the week.

Holbrooke made clear through his many congressional testimonies and generous briefings with reporters that peace – violence- and threat-free living conditions and at least an opportunity for average citizens to seek a prosperous life – was the constant goal of his work.

Need for tough diplomacy

But to get there he saw need for a tough diplomacy that didn’t always sit well with the equally bigger-than-life personalities he often dealt with.

Indeed, Holbrooke’s relations with President Karzai were so strained over the deeply questioned presidential election in August 2009 that Obama was left to dispatch Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts to smooth over relations and convince Karzai to submit to a runoff in his reelection bid.

Still, Holbrooke’s intent was never doubted, even by those he most fiercely confronted. Both Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, after hearing of his hospitalization Friday, telephoned Holbrooke at the hospital on Sunday and spoke with his wife.

Perhaps the keenest appreciation of Holbrooke’s skill and perseverance came Tuesday from Europe, where leaders still hold fresh in their memory the role of an American diplomat who was critical to ending a war they could not stop.

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