Holbrooke's death complicates peace efforts

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The late U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke’s stature, tenacity and extensive contacts allowed him to weave together once-separate diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Replacing him will be difficult.

Holbrooke, who died Monday in Washington following surgery for a tear in his aorta, had extensive background in major posts from Vietnam to Germany and the former Yugoslavia.

“The office was created essentially for him and built by him to try to enable diplomatic and civilian side efforts to connect what had been two stove-piped policies under the last administration,” said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “Ambassador Holbrooke was playing a multilayered game. This is not an easy job.”

“When he spoke to the powerful in the region it was clear he had the ear of those to whom he spoke because he had the ear of the powers in Washington,” said Michael Corgan, a professor of international relations at Boston University. “There is no one on the horizon to replace him in this role.”

In Afghanistan, Holbrooke, 69, was the civilian point man for the Obama administration’s push to shift more responsibility to Afghan troops and the Afghan government so that U.S. troops could withdraw. In Pakistan, Holbrooke tried to improve the U.S. image through humanitarian aid, while nudging the military and government to eradicate safe havens for Taliban and al-Qaida militants on their side of the border with Afghanistan.

After repeated visits over many months to both countries, Holbrooke’s efforts had yielded mixed results.

He seemed to have reached a comfort level with Pakistan’s civilian leaders, and his death could mean that the U.S. may have to rely more on its military-to-military contacts in the coming months to press its agenda in Islamabad, analysts said. But his efforts in Kabul faltered in part because he had a frosty relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Holbrooke’s death comes just days before the Obama administration is expected to roll out the results of its review of the Afghanistan war. And, even as flags flew at half-staff for him at the State Department on Tuesday, President Barack Obama convened his Afghanistan-Pakistan policy team at the White House to plot a way ahead.

“Few have done as much to achieve success; none have done more,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I know we will all feel his bully presence in the room as we do so.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs indicated Tuesday that Obama would eventually fill Holbrooke’s post as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, though he said those discussions had not begun.

Officials from both Pakistan and Afghanistan issued statements of condolence Tuesday.

The praise appeared much more effusive on the Pakistani side. President Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, both called him a “personal friend.” That could be a possible sign of the difficulties Holbrooke faced in his relations with Karzai, who issued a brief statement calling Holbrooke’s death “a big loss for the American people.”

Holbrooke pushed Karzai to root out the corruption that has made his government unpopular with the Afghan people and helped fuel the resurgence of the Taliban. Holbrooke’s headstrong style angered Karzai, who complained privately that the American did not understand Afghan culture. It fell to Sen. John Kerry — and not Holbrooke — to persuade the Afghan president to agree to a runoff after the fraud-marred presidential election last year.

For now, Holbrooke’s death leaves Ambassador Karl Eikenberry essentially alone in conducting U.S. diplomacy with Karzai’s government, and his relationship was strained by leaked cables posted by Wikileaks.

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