Holbrooke's death leaves a hole in Afghan policy

Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, died late on Monday frustrated at his failure to make progress in ending the war in Afghanistan. He was 69 and his death in Washington came after 21 hours of surgery to repair a torn aorta.

Mr Holbrooke saw himself as playing a heroic role as envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan where he hoped to repeat his success in 1995 when he oversaw the talks that ended the war in Bosnia. But, despite his energy and notorious combativeness, he was unable to forge a political strategy likely to bring peace.

President Obama said in praise of Mr Holbrooke that he was, "a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer and more respected. He was a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace".

Yet in the two years since Mr Holbrooke took the job it had become well known among top officials in the White House that Mr Obama did not like him. This may have been partly because he owed his appointment to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who he served as foreign policy adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign. Had she won the White House he hoped to become Secretary of State.

"He's the most egotistical bastard I've ever met," the US Vice-President Joe Biden is quoted as saying to Mr Obama in Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward. "But maybe he's the right guy for the job."

Mr Woodward records that one of Mr Holbrooke's few successful interventions with Mr Obama was to get the President to call him "Richard" rather than "Dick", though Mr Obama said that he found the request peculiar.

Mr Holbrooke revelled in his reputation as a "bulldozer" and something of a bully, but in Afghanistan and Pakistan these qualities did not have as much impact as in the Balkans. American power post the Iraq war is also not what it was in the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr Holbrooke had been a member of the political elite for 40 years and served as a senior official in all Democratic administrations since the 1970s. Beginning as a field officer in Vietnam, the high point of his career was the Dayton Agreement when, over 20 days, he manoeuvred successfully between Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian leaders to end the war in the Balkans.

His inability to produce similar results in Afghanistan limited his influence in the White House where he was only one of a number of important players with input into Afghan policy. Mrs Clinton rebuffed efforts to sack him but the State Department as a whole has been increasingly marginalised by the US military in formulating policy. This has taken the form of relying on defeating, or at least seriously weakening, the Taliban in battle without developing a political strategy.

Mr Holbrooke was the only member of Mr Obama's team to have experience of the Vietnam War. This was hardly an analogy which the White House wanted to be reminded of, though he held that, unlike Vietnam, the Afghan war could be won. His remit covered more than diplomacy and included reorganising the US aid programme which is expensive and often ineffective.

A problem for Mr Holbrooke has been that in both Afghanistan and Pakistan he was dealing with political leaders with little power to deliver however much he tried to cajole them. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai appears to calculate that whatever the US says about him it cannot replace him. Mr Holbrooke clashed with him over fixing the presidential election in 2009 but only succeeded in permanently alienating the Afghan leader. Mr Karzai's message of condolence yesterday did not even mention that Mr Holbrooke had worked in Afghanistan.

According to cables from the US embassy in Islamabad leaked to WikiLeaks the Pakistan army shows no signs of abandoning its covert backing for the Taliban. Here again Mr Holbrooke's mission was undermined by the multitude of players on the US side.

If Mr Holbrooke has a successor he or she is also likely to be defeated by the lack of an effective US political strategy towards the Pakistan army, the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Associate Sales Consultant

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Associate Sales Consultant i...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established and expanding ...

Recruitment Genius: Water Jetting / HGV Driver - Industrial Services

£14000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Skilled Labouring staff with id...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Executive - OTE £30,000

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Salary: £16k - £20k Dependant o...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot