Holbrooke's death leaves void in war strategy

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The death of Richard C. Holbrooke, who directed the civilian side of the war in Afghanistan, leaves a major void in what has always been the most difficult and vulnerable aspect of President Obama's strategy.

Tactical military gains have given the administration optimism that Taliban momentum, if not yet reversed, has been stalled. The Afghan army, while far from capable of taking over from the U.S.-led military coalition, is growing in number 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. 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. His fights in Pakistan to ensure the money was used effectively were equally tough.

On Tuesday, Obama is scheduled to meet with his top national security advisers to finalize an assessment of his Afghanistan strategy in the year since he announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops and an expanded counterinsurgency effort last December.

The president, along with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has already made his views clear.

"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 Operation 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 return, as expected, in a new offensive next spring.

Holbrooke persistently pressed Karzai, often to the breaking point in their relationship, to end the kickbacks and bribes that plague his government. 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.

In Pakistan, an ambitious development program whose funding was hard-won from a doubting Congress 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.

Outside the administration, a wide variety of U.S.-based experts and analysts has questioned whether the administration's overall strategy can, or should, be sustained.

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 ramshackle 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.

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

© 2010 The Washington Post Company