Special envoy Richard Holbrooke has surgery for tear in aorta

Veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who is a U.S. special envoy on the Afghanistan war, was in critical condition after more than 20 hours of surgery to fix a tear in the large artery that moves blood from the heart.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 12:39 AM

Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's diplomatic point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan, remained in critical condition Saturday night after surgery to repair a life-threatening tear in his aorta.

Holbrooke, 69, is a key member of the administration's war strategy team. He was taken to George Washington University Hospital on Friday morning after he became flushed and had chest pains during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He was almost immediately taken into surgery that extended for 21 hours into Saturday.

With Holbrooke in intensive care only blocks away, President Obama's senior national security advisers met at the White House on Saturday to discuss a major internal assessment of the war in Afghanistan. Obama will review the assessment Monday, with release to the public scheduled for later in the week.

Holbrooke's family and members of his State Department staff remained at the hospital awaiting word on his condition. In a statement, Obama said he had spoken with Holbrooke's wife, author and journalist Kati Marton, and told her that he was praying for him.

Obama called Holbrooke "a towering figure in American foreign policy, a critical member of my Afghanistan and Pakistan team, and a tireless public servant who has won the admiration of the American people and people around the world."

Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the hospital Friday night and again on Saturday, along with Thomas E. Donilon, Obama's national security adviser.

Hospital spokesmen referred questions to the State Department, which released a terse statement Saturday on his condition and the completion of surgery.

The aorta is the major artery carrying blood from the heart to other parts of the body. From the heart, it moves up through the chest toward the head, then bends and moves down through the chest and abdomen. Surgical repair of a tear in the internal wall is possible, although serious complications in the brain and extremities can arise from interruptions in blood flow.

Administration officials said that Holbrooke's condition would not affect the war review, compiled over the past month by the National Security Council staff from assessments made by Holbrooke and his staff and by the military coalition led by Gen. David H. Petraeus. In statements in recent weeks, Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and others have called the strategy a success and indicated that they expect few, if any, changes.

But some members of the administration, including some intelligence and military officials, are less optimistic that offensive operations in southern Afghanistan will lead to long-term stability and the Taliban's defeat in that region. They have also noted an expansion in insurgent activity in the northern and eastern parts of the country and the ongoing failure of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to stem corruption and establish effective governance.

Despite billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic assistance, Pakistan has continued to resist U.S. urging to move aggressively against insurgent sanctuaries in tribal regions along the Afghanistan border, an effort considered crucial to coalition success. Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing by July an unspecified number of the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, and the 49-nation coalition there has projected a complete turnover to local military forces by the end of 2014. Although Obama's Democratic base has pressed for a faster withdrawal, to decrease the human toll of the war and its $100 billion annual cost, many Republicans have criticized the president for setting a deadline that they think favors the Taliban.

More than any other individual, Holbrooke has been the spokesman for the overall effort, testifying before Congress, cajoling other governments to contribute and making countless trips to the region.

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