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Holbrooke’s Death Leaves Hole in Diminishing Diplomatic Portion of AfPak Policy

Richard Holbrooke died yesterday. The man was basically a shadow Secretary of State-in-waiting for the Bush era, a diplomatic fixer in the Clinton era (with the Dayton accords as his crowning achievement), a co-author of the Pentagon Papers and part of the Paris peace talks in the Vietnam era, and in the Obama era he took maybe the worst task in the foreign service, as US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(He also used those global diplomatic contacts well, presumably, when he worked as a Wall Street investment banker in the 80s and 90s, with stints at Lehman Brothers, Credit Suisse First Boston and AIG. He left 15 years before the crash of 2008.)

It was an impossible task and Holbrooke appeared to know it. He had to cajole Hamid Karzai into fighting corruption and delivering services to the Afghan people, despite Karzai’s own culpability in these problems. He had to wheedle Pakistan into going after the extreme elements hiding out on their borders, despite the internal ties in the military and intelligence forces to those militants. He had to manage tensions in a region that has lived under this particular occupation for nearly a decade. And he hasn’t seen much in the way of progress. He admitted to agreeing with the assessment of Matthew Hoh, the foreign service officer who resigned his post in Afghanistan a year ago amid severe criticism over what the US was doing with the war effort.

Perhaps this is why his last words, according to his family members, were uttered to the surgeon attending to the tear in his aorta. He told the doctor, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Holbrooke, the only member of the Administration dealing with Afghanistan to experience the searing cauldron of Vietnam first-hand, at least knew a quagmire when he saw one. He did not have the clout within the Administration to get a change of course, and perhaps he didn’t particularly want one, confident in his own abilities to somehow see the conflict through. But he did come at the war with a different perspective.

And the military will almost surely step into the void this leaves for Afghanistan policy. The civilian side has been under-emphasized as the true solution for extracting the US from the conflict, but the task was truly monumental and nearly impossible. Get a kleptocrat to govern like a statesman? Develop one of the world’s poorest economies at a time when funding the security forces alone would double the nation’s annual GDP? Get the Pakistani military and intelligence services to go against their blood brothers? Now you’re not likely to even see much lip service toward these goals. Since Gen. Petraeus got to Afghanistan, the drive has been toward air strikes, night raids, tanks and shows of force.

What’s more, it’s unclear just who talks to Karzai now. Karl Eikenberry, the US Ambassador, basically called Karzai a criminal to his face. Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or John Kerry cannot spend all their time there. And other candidates for envoys do not have anywhere near the stature of a Holbrooke.

The Administration will unveil its strategy review for Afghanistan on Thursday, and it will be highly influenced by the military view of the war. Military leaders are already badmouthing a dour set of National Intelligence Estimates on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which show the war basically lost. Not that Holbrooke could hope to be a counter-weight to the military’s united front, but any hope of a counter-weight at all is probably lost now. This is the general’s war. And generals never ask for fewer resources.

Hillary Clinton’s tribute to Holbrooke is here.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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