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

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.

Obama is expected to restate his pledge to begin drawing down U.S. combat troop levels in July, a process now scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014.

According to several administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the assessment has not been released, its most positive aspects will be based on military reports from Petraeus, who has described successful clearing operations in and around the Taliban bastions of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, and southwestern Helmand province. Petraeus has also cited the elimination, through killing or capture, of hundreds of Taliban commanders and local political leaders in raids by U.S. Special Operations forces.

Progress has lagged, however, on installing competent, non-corrupt Afghan officials who can convince their own population that they are worth supporting once the Taliban returns, as expected, in a new offensive next spring.

Holbrooke's death is the latest complication in an effort plagued by unreliable partners, reluctant allies and an increasingly skeptical American public. Operating from a suite of offices on the State Department's ground floor, he personally collected his staff from throughout the government and far beyond. He gathered academics and experts from think tanks and academia, steeped in the region and its history, language and culture.

He was the glue that held the enterprise together, and his absence is likely to increase the already formidable challenge the administration faces.

Holbrooke, who directed the civilian side of the war, persistently pressed Karzai - often to the point of risking their relationship - to end the kickbacks and bribes that plague his government. But efforts to substitute Afghanistan's widespread opium crop with wheat ran into opposition from farmers, a fall in international grain prices and attacks from the Taliban. Projects to improve Afghanistan's infrastructure have been equally plagued by corruption and insurgents.

Outside the administration, U.S.-based experts and analysts have questioned whether the administration's overall strategy can, or should, be sustained.

Using the force of his outsize personality and longtime connections throughout the foreign relations community, Holbrooke fought hard in Washington to obtain increased economic assistance for Pakistan from a doubting U.S. Congress.

His fights in Pakistan to ensure the money was used effectively were equally tough, and the ambitious development program that resulted from his efforts has yet to prove itself or to significantly dent widespread anti-Americanism.

The new administration assessment, officials say, is likely to express little optimism that the Pakistani military will move forcefully to rout insurgent groups it sees as protecting its own interests in Afghanistan, amid concerns about the viability of Pakistan's weak civilian government.

In Pakistan Tuesday, officials described Holbrooke as a tireless promoter of stability in Pakistan who easily gained confidence in the nation. "Pakistan has lost a friend," President Asif Ali Zardari said. "The best tribute to him is to reiterate our resolve to root out extremism and usher in peace and stability."

Senior U.S. officials in Kabul issued similarly glowing tributes. "Our efforts in Afghanistan lost a powerful advocate today," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry said. Petraeus called the diplomat "a true titan in the diplomatic arena and a central figure in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

But Afghan officials were markedly cooler. Karzai said in a statement that Holbrooke "served greatly the government and the people of the United States."

Stanikzai, Karzai's legal adviser, said he hopes the Obama administration replaces Holbrooke with "someone who is familiar with the Afghan situation and its challenges."

And the Taliban compared Holbrooke's death to the failing health of Soviet leaders during their war in Afghanistan a generation ago.

"The protracted Afghan war and the descending trajectory of the Americans' handling of the warfare in the country had had a lethal dent on Holbrooke's health," the statement said.

Correspondents Karin Brullliard in Islamabad and Ernesto Londono and Javed Hamdard in Kabul and staff writers William Branigin and Debbi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this report.

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