Holbrooke: A 'larger than life' statesman

Posted in United States , Afghanistan | 09-Feb-09 | Author: Jodi Kantor| Source: International Herald Tribune

Richard Holbrooke standing on a tank, in one of a series of family photos from Afghanistan in 2006, with his wife, Kati Marton.

Stashed in a drawer in his New York apartment between snapshots of family vacations, a photograph shows Richard Holbrooke on a private visit to Afghanistan in 2006. He is mugging atop an abandoned Russian tank, flashing a sardonic V-for-victory sign and his best Nixon-style grin. The pose is a little like Holbrooke himself: looming, theatrical, passionate, indignant.

Three years later, he has inherited responsibility for the terrain he surveyed from that tank. As President Barack Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke will help reformulate and carry out U.S. policy in what many call the most problematic region on earth.

Between them, the two countries contain unstable governments, insurgencies; corruption and a narcotics trade; nuclear material; refugees; resentment of U.S. power; a resurgent Taliban; and in the shadows of the tribal region that joins the two countries, Al Qaeda and presumably Osama bin Laden.

"You have a problem that is larger than life," said Christopher Hill, a longtime colleague expected to be named as the new ambassador to Iraq. "To deal with it you need someone who's larger than life."

Few other diplomats can boast of the accomplishments of Holbrooke, 67, who negotiated the Dayton peace accords to end the war in Bosnia.

But as he lands in Pakistan on Monday, back on duty after eight years of a Republican administration, he is still an outsider in the Obama circle, having only recently developed a relationship with the new president. His longtime foreign-policy pupil, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has the secretary of state job he has always wanted. And he has taken on a task so difficult that merely averting disaster may be the only triumph.

"We are still in the process of digging our way into the debris," Holbrooke said in an interview. "We've inherited an extraordinarily dysfunctional situation in which the very objectives have to be reviewed."

Obama and Clinton chose Holbrooke because of his ability to twist arms as well as hold hands, work closely with the military and improvise inventive solutions to what others write off as insoluble problems. But no one yet knows how his often pyrotechnical style - he whispers, but also pesters, bluffs, threatens, stages fits and publicizes - will work in an administration that prizes low-key competence or in a region that is dangerously unstable.

"Richard C. Holbrooke is the diplomatic equivalent of a hydrogen bomb," said Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state and a friend.

Already, Holbrooke's return to Washington has caused tremors. His arrival at the State Department has rattled colleagues who remember him as someone who cultivates the powerful and tramples those with less to offer. Others worry about his assiduous courtship of the media. Judging from interviews with several officials, there seems to be confusion about whether the U.S. Embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan will be controlled by Holbrooke or the regular State Department overseers.

For now, Holbrooke is both raising expectations and lowering them. He is talking about Afpak - Washington shorthand for his assignment - as his last and toughest mission. But along with the rest of Obama's foreign-policy staff, he is also trying to redefine success in the region, shifting away from former President George W. Bush's grand, transformative goals and toward something more achievable.

On Monday, Holbrooke is to begin a 10-day tour of the region, where he will try to vacuum up as much information as possible, he said, visiting high-level officials and local ones, women who serve in the Afghan National Assembly, military bases, nongovernmental organizations, anti-narcotics programs, refugee camps and the perilous tribal region.

There is a reason for this wide-ranging tour: Because official Afghan and Pakistani leaders are seen as weak, Holbrooke may have to seek alternative partners, a task to which he is naturally suited, according to Wesley Clark, the retired army general.

"Richard Holbrooke sees power the way an artist sees color," Clark said.

Until a few years ago, Holbrooke had been to Afghanistan exactly once: in 1971, when he wandered around with a backpack, he said in the interview last week as he frowned at television reports of a kidnapping in Pakistan. The setting of the interview, Perseus, a New York private equity firm where he worked as vice chairman until recently, was an elegant one, at least until he began clipping his fingernails with office shears.

During the Bush years, Perseus was Holbrooke's base, providing him with what friends say was a relatively undemanding job and lavish compensation as he bounced from topic to topic, almost as if he was seeking a problem tough enough to rivet all of his attention. He founded the American Academy in Berlin, which promotes cultural relations, and used a formerly quiet nonprofit called the Global Business Coalition to match corporate leaders with public health issues. He became chairman of the Asia Society, an institution mostly known for art exhibits, and pushed it toward more policy discussions.

But with a Republican president, Holbrooke's nose was pressed to the glass of the statecraft window. On the morning of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the greatest foreign-policy challenge in generations came crashing into his own city, Holbrooke, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, sat in traffic like any other New Yorker.

Few New Yorkers, though, decide to inspect Afghanistan for themselves. By 2006, alarmed at the deteriorating conditions there and lured by a relative working for the United Nations, Holbrooke traveled privately around the country, returning for another visit in 2008. He went to a police training center in Herat, near the Iranian border, where he watched retired police officers from Alabama try to train Afghans.

In Khost, Holbrooke slept on a cot at a reconstruction project office and met with madrasa students and former Taliban fighters, pouring the tea himself to convey respect, according to Kael Weston, a State Department political officer who served as his guide.

Holbrooke also met with newly elected female leaders who barely seemed to know the basics of legislation. Everywhere, Holbrooke passed enormous new villas built by narcotics smugglers.

At a maximum-security prison north of Kabul, the capital, Holbrooke fell into a long conversation with a senior Taliban operative, a mullah who patiently answered questions and then asked one of his own: "When will you and the Americans be leaving?"

Holbrooke told him he did not know. "The more you think about it, the more it highlights the dilemma," he said in the interview: The United States cannot say it is leaving, nor can it say it is staying forever.

At home, Holbrooke used the Asia Society to assemble his own personal think tank on Afghanistan. The group, which included General James Jones until he became national security adviser, will soon release a study recommending that the United States declare an end to Bush's "war on terror" and negotiate with Taliban members willing to separate from Al Qaeda. Holbrooke has now left the group, but thanks to him, some of the regional experts who wrote the study are now briefing Clinton.

From the beginning of her Senate career, Holbrooke served as a foreign policy adviser to Clinton, contributing ideas for major speeches and weighing in on crises. Sometimes, Clinton or her staff reached out to him, aides said. But Holbrooke was not exactly shy about calling or sending e-mail messages on his own. The moment the Democratic primaries ended, Obama aides say, Holbrooke showered them with ideas as well.

By the time Obama sat down for a sustained conversation with Holbrooke, he was president-elect, and Clinton was the leading candidate for secretary of state. Once she took the job, Holbrooke was considered for the deputy post, but the idea was quickly rejected: He was a negotiator, not an administrator, and the secretary and the president wanted to put a powerful person in charge of dealings with Afghanistan and Pakistan, State Department officials said.

"Richard represents the kind of robust, persistent, determined diplomacy the president intends to pursue," Clinton said in an interview. "I admire deeply his ability to shoulder the most vexing and difficult challenges."

Thanks to Holbrooke's negotiating skills, he won himself an unusual title: representative rather than envoy, meaning that his responsibilities extend beyond the State Department and that he will report to the president, but through Clinton. It is a bit of Washingtonese whose precise meaning will become clear only with time.

His first task is to help lead a total review of U.S. policy in the region, for which Obama has set a 60-day deadline. Another is to learn as much about Pakistan as he has about Afghanistan.

4 killed by roadside bomb

Two U.S. soldiers, one Afghan police officer and an Afghan interpreter were killed when a captured roadside bomb exploded in Naad Ali district, about 570 kilometers, or 350 miles, southwest of Kabul, a senior provincial police official said, Reuters reported from Helmand, Afghanistan.