Holbrooke's death leaves major void in Obama's Afghan strategy

Leaders and officials around the world have hailed late U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke as "best and brightest."
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 3:43 PM

President Obama and his advisers gathered at the White House on Tuesday to review U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, a day after Richard C. Holbrooke, special envoy to the region, died of complications from a torn aorta. His absence leaves a major void in what has always been the most difficult aspect of a high-risk, high-stakes war.

Tactical military gains have given the administration optimism that Taliban momentum, if not yet reversed, has been stalled. The Afghan army, while still shaky, is growing in size and ability.

But progress in creating a viable and sustainable Afghan government and economy, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and the efforts of more than 1,000 U.S. officials on the ground, has been an uphill battle, and President Hamid Karzai has been an erratic partner. Meanwhile, neighboring Pakistan's stability and determination to rout al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents from border regions remain uncertain.

Holbrooke was well-regarded in Pakistan, but viewed with suspicion in Afghanistan. In Islamabad Tuesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the diplomat's death, at age 69, "has left a huge vacuum."

But in Kabul, Karzai's legal adviser complained that Holbrooke viewed Afghanistan's problems through the prism of its neighbor. "His death will not have an impact on the situation in Afghanistan at all," the adviser, Nasrullah Stanikzai, said. "He was paying more attention to Pakistan and India rather than Afghanistan."

The Taliban posted a statement on its English-language Web site blaming Holbrooke's death on "the unremitting failures of the mission of Afghanistan."

Tuesday's meeting, scheduled long before Holbrooke fell ill, was to finalize an assessment of Obama's Afghanistan strategy in the year since he announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops and an expanded counterinsurgency effort last December.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, briefing reporters Tuesday after Obama's meeting with his national security team, said Holbrooke's presence "will be sorely missed" as the United States pursues its goals in Afghanistan. Holbrooke was "a giant in foreign policy and is irreplaceable," Gibbs said.

He indicated that Obama eventually would choose someone to fill the role of special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan but said there has been no talk yet of likely candidates for the post.

As for the strategy itself, the president has already made his views clear, as have Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "We are in a better place now than we were a year ago," Obama said late last month at a NATO summit. Progress, Clinton said, has been confirmed "by all accounts."

On a visit to Afghanistan last week, Gates told reporters that he was "convinced that our strategy is working and that we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by President Obama."

The results of the strategy review - compiled by the National Security Council from input by Holbrooke; Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan; and other officials - are to be announced publicly Thursday.

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