The death of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke came at a rather untimely moment. The Obama Administration was putting the final touches on the strategic review of what is dubbed “Af-Pak” policy, and Holbrooke was a key participant in that.
Holbrooke was known for an outsize ego and abrasive manner, and was nicknamed “the Bulldozer.” But he was also an immensely talented diplomat. Few knew how to cajole, wheedle, and plead among intractable parties better than he. The testament to that is the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the war in Bosnia. Many tend to forget about it now, but it was an awful conflict, rent through with ethnic and religious tensions. Yet Holbrooke got sworn enemies to hammer out an agreement. Holbrooke died one day before the 15th anniversary of those accords.
But the job as troubleshooter for the Af-Pak diplomatic portfolio is a tougher nut, in many ways, to crack. The job Holbrooke held was ill-defined from the beginning. He was reporting to one person – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – and he was sometimes at odds with the ambassadors in Islamabad or Kabul. He also clashed with then-National Security Advisor James Jones and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, especially over Afghan government corruption.
War-zone diplomacy is a particularly difficult task. Holbrooke’s roots were in this specialty, serving as a young foreign service officer in Vietnam. He often raised Vietnam when talking about Afghanistan, not to make parallels – he was careful to say that “Afghanistan is not Vietnam” – but to drive home the horrible price of armed conflict. It was an experience that threaded through his experiences from Bosnia to Afghanistan.
But, had he lived, could he have negotiated a Dayton-style accord in Afghanistan? Could he have gotten the Taliban, or at least some of the less savory elements of it, and the Afghan government to agree to a political deal?
That’s a bit more of a problematic question. Afghanistan is not Bosnia, either. It is questionable whether the head-butting style that Holbrooke employed in Dayton would have worked in the Afghan milieu. As former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia Teresita Schaffer said to me, “Afghans don’t like to be forced.” In fact, some question whether anybody could broker an Afghan peace deal.
Any hope of reaching such a deal would likely need the services of a super-diplomat as interlocutor – someone like Richard Holbrooke. But diplomats of his stature are in very short supply anywhere in the world.