After Holbrooke, New Afghan Tests

The death of Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2009, following surgery to repair a ruptured aorta, could have a significant impact on the Obama administration's efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke directed the administration's civilian efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was a strong advocate of ratcheting up development and governance aid to both countries. He also coined the term "Af-Pak" until it was discarded by the Obama administration as a result of Pakistani ire. The State Department announced just prior to his death that his position would be filled temporarily by his deputy, Frank Ruggiero.

Holbrooke's death comes at a critical time for the administration. President Barack Obama is scheduled to make a statement Thursday on the assessment of his Afghanistan strategy since he announced the deployment of thirty thousand additional troops and an expanded counterinsurgency effort last December. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week the U.S. strategy was working and expressed confidence that Afghan forces will be able to take the lead on security by 2014, the date set by Obama last year. The White House -- ahead of the release of the strategy review -- signaled that no major changes are under consideration.

In his last interview with in August, Holbrooke criticized the international response to Pakistan's flood disaster as inadequate. One of his early initiatives involved reorganizing the way aid was disbursed in Pakistan; he ordered an end to the automatic renewal of aid contracts with U.S. and other foreign nongovernmental organizations and pushed for transition of funds away from USAID to Pakistani organizations. This brought him in conflict with both USAID officials and some members of Congress. The debate over how to disburse and implement U.S. aid most effectively in Pakistan remains unresolved, as accountability of Pakistani organizations remains a political issue in Washington.

Under Holbrooke's direction, U.S. civilian personnel in Afghanistan more than tripled to exceed one thousand. He pushed to end the U.S. focus on Afghan poppy eradication, arguing that removing the livelihood of so many Afghan farmers was counterproductive. His most difficult, and often acrimonious, battle was pushing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to end the widespread corruption in his government. Holbrooke also pressed for a political settlement with Taliban leaders. An increasing number of regional experts see a political settlement as an important piece of the peace solution; in an open letter Monday to President Obama, nearly fifty U.S., Pakistani, and Afghan analysts called for the United States to take the lead on negotiations that explored a political settlement that enables the Taliban to become a responsible actor in the Afghan political order. The Obama administration supports Karzai's quiet negotiations with the Taliban but has not been directly involved.

The United States continues to face the multiple challenges of declining Afghan support for U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, eroding U.S. public support for the war, growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan, and continuing support for some insurgent groups by Pakistan's army and intelligence services. Holbrooke's last words will prove elusive yet: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."


A new CFR Task Force Report on Afghanistan and Pakistan says the upcoming Afghanistan review should be "a clear-eyed assessment of whether there is sufficient overall progress to conclude that the strategy is working." If not, the report argues that "a more significant drawdown to a narrower military mission would be warranted."

Leslie H. Gelb, CFR's president emeritus, writes that President Obama's upcoming Afghanistan strategy review promises four more years of war in Afghanistan and four more years of economic decline in America.


Foreign Affairs offers a review of Holbrooke's essays for the magazine over the years.

The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart looks at Holbrooke's special blend of superpower swagger and moral passion.

Read George Packer's profile of Holbrooke in the New Yorker.

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