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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
people
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in What If
filmReview: Actor swaps Harry Potter for Cary Grant in What If
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Energy Engineer

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy En...

Sales Representative, Leicester

£25-£30k Plus Car: Charter Selection: Major well established nationwide market...

Sales Representative, Birmingham

£25-£30k Plus Car: Charter Selection: Major well established nationwide market...

HR Administration Manager - Hounslow, West London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Administration Manager...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment