Richard Holbrooke often struggled to be heard on Pakistan and Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke's struggle to be heard amid competing US voices in the region has some suggesting that the office of special envoy should be shut down.

Fareed Khan/AP
A Pakistani man watches a television broadcast about the death of Richard Holbrooke (seen large image top right on screen), US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a local electronic shop in Karachi, Pakistan, on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

Richard Holbrooke posed tough criticisms internally of US policy in Afghanistan, and expressed a strong desire for ending the war in his final days in the hospital. During his tenure as President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he challenged US military projections for the Afghan security forces, and became a forceful advocate for civilian rule and cleaner government in the region.
But despite his reputation as a heavyweight in US diplomacy going back to the Vietnam War, Mr. Holbrooke struggled with a cacophony of voices dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now that he's gone, some in the region say it's time to scrap the envoy role altogether and instead channel US communications within the region through fewer players.

In particular, some suggest, if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to engage in the region, she would have the authority to better coordinate her pair of well-regarded ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul as well as US military outreach.

“You do need to have one central voice and one central lead, and that really should be Secretary Clinton,” says Samina Ahmed, project director for South Asia at the International Crisis Group.

Currently, many voices speak for the US in Pakistan, says Ms. Ahmed. Congress, the US Embassy, and Holbrooke’s office all work with the civilian government, while military leaders like Adm. Mike Mullen negotiate regularly with the Pakistani military.

“In the midst of a democratic transition, you have the military taking the lead as much as the civilians taking the lead as far as what the US policy should be. These are confused signals sent,” Ahmed says.

However, it appears the Obama administration intends to keep the office of special envoy, naming Frank Ruggiero, a lesser-known diplomat but one with experience navigating the civilian-military divide in Afghanistan, as his successor.

'An odd man out'

Gen. Hamid Gul, the retired director of Pakistan’s ISI spy agency, also saw differences between Holbrooke, the US Embassy in Islamabad, and the Pentagon. The US Embassy cables from Pakistan released by WikiLeaks never mention Holbrooke, he points out, while the Pakistani military was already used to dealing with Pentagon leaders – and continued to do so.

“Basically, I think he was an odd man out,” says Gul.

Holbrooke's role came as a disappointment from the beginning in Pakistan, Gul adds, because it was originally supposed to include India – and, thereby, encompass the Kashmir conflict.

“He was a truncated envoy without Kashmir, we know it very well that the road to Kabul goes through Srinigar,” Gul says, referencing the Kashmir city controlled by India.

The scope of Holbrooke’s portfolio seemingly pleased no one. While hawks like Gul were upset with the dropping of India, military skeptics like Ahmed were unhappy with the binding of Afghanistan and Pakistan within US diplomacy.

Some Pakistani democracy advocates do credit Holbrooke as a strong voice of support for civilian – not military – government in Pakistan.

“I think this is something [Holbrooke] took from the political leadership in this country and had been able to lobby for” in Washington, says Muddassir Rizvi, national coordinator of the Free & Fair Election Network in Pakistan.

“He did not come and make huge big statements, unlike past US secretaries,” says Mr. Rizvi. “He would employ a persuasive approach that may take months, that may take longer.”

Holbrooke's 'pessimistic' view on Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the crowd of US players was even thicker, as shown in Bob Woodward’s book, “Obama’s Wars,” an account of the administration’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to the war.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Vice President Joseph Biden led the counterarguments, pointing out the shortcomings of military escalation given the shortcomings on the civilian side. Holbrooke sounded many of the same cautionary notes, though was constrained knowing that his boss, Clinton, hewed closely to the military’s recommendations.

Mr. Woodward writes that Holbrooke did not develop a connection with Obama and did not have the respect of some of the brain trust, who would stop note-taking when he talked.

Yet, Holbrooke winds up with some of the most challenging quotes in the book. He devastatingly pointed out that the US could not reach a goal of 400,000 Afghan security forces with the current attrition rates: “It’s like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it.” Obama eventually refused US military efforts to set a 400,000 target.

Regarding corruption, Holbrooke pointed out that “our presence is the corrupting force,” noting – as few US officials do – that contractors paid by the US government eventually pay off the Taliban.

In the end, after Obama announced the 30,000 troop surge in December 2009, Woodward writes that Holbrooke had “perhaps the most pessimistic view,” quoting him as saying simply: “It can’t work.”

Nor did his assessment seem to brighten. The Washington Post reports that his last words to his Pakistani doctor were: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

WikiLeaks revealed that Holbrooke played a key role in shaping a tough US response to the fraud-riddled reelection of President Hamid Karzai in 2009. Drawing on past experience, he cautioned against letting any of the candidates declare victory prematurely.

Tension with Karzai over the election, however, led to a shouting match between the two and the US would eventually have to dispatch Sen. John Kerry to convince Karzai to agree to a runoff.

Holbrooke's deputy and newly named successor, Mr. Ruggiero, will enjoy none of Holbrooke’s name recognition – particularly in Pakistan – and will have to spend months building a similar set of personal relationships with regional leaders.

In Afghanistan, Mr. Ruggiero headed up the so-called “civilian uplift,” a buildup of agricultural and development experts to work with the US military in rebuilding the Afghan government and economy. Previously he headed up the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

He also has experience sifting through the agendas of regional leaders. He plays a role in a couple of WikiLeaks cables where he meets with Karzai’s half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, at several points confronting the latter’s suspected double-dealing.

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