Foreign Policy Blogs

Pakistan's Holbrooke

The news of Richard Holbrooke’s sudden death engulfed diplomatic circles in Washington with an ineffable sorrow.  His condition was reported critical but stabilizing a day earlier, as his doctors hoped for a slow recovery after a lengthy surgery to repair a tear in his aorta. But 69 year old Richard Holbrooke could not survive.

Holbrooke, whose forceful style earned him nicknames such as “The Bulldozer” and “Raging Bull,” was admitted to the hospital on Friday after becoming ill at the State Department. Keeping up to this reputation Holbrooke fought for his life for four days and three nights. In Hillary Clinton’s words, “His doctors marveled at his strength and his willpower, but to his friends, that was just Richard being Richard.”

Earlier Monday, Secretary Hillary Clinton, who along with her husband Bill, visited Holbrooke at the George Washington University Hospital and remarked afterwards, “Richard Holbrooke served the country he loved for nearly half a century, representing the United States in far-flung war zones and high-level peace talks, always with distinctive brilliance and unmatched determination.

But the United States was not the only country that he loved. His latest preferred country was Pakistan. His staff members believe that not just US that lost a brilliant diplomat, but that Pakistan lost a sincere friend in the person of Richard Holbrooke. He took his work as a Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan so seriously that he spend most of his time traveling to these countries. He stayed nearly month in Afghanistan when was assigned this job by President Obama in 2009.

The former US ambassador to the UN was widely considered “one of the most talented diplomats of his generation,” as Obama said in January last year. Just yesterday President Obama called him “toughest son of a gun.” It was this reputation that won him both friends and foes. There was no middle ground for him.

With his body size, imposing intellect and inquisitive looks, one could never guess if he was about to hug you or punch you. Only a little smile would give you a hint of his mood. At least that’s how I felt the first time I made his acquaintance. I distinctly remember that we met at an official State Department function last year after his nomination. Earlier that day a television reporter was killed in an attack in Pakistan. Holbrooke was like a star working the room, ditching some, greeting others depending on his frankness with them. I was pretty sure that he couldn’t understand my name properly, but just as he heard the word Pakistan, he expressed his condolences of the death of the reporter with me.

He later developed a friendly relationship with journalists from South Asia. Usually after meetings he would share notes with the crew on ‘what books to read” and their significance. Holbrooke was the high ranked official who was available almost anytime you need him. No protocol required, as he had seen all and of course enjoyed all.

“Mr. Ambassador”, as he preferred to be called, was poised to be secretary of State if Al Gore, Senator John Kerry or Hillary Clinton had won the presidency. Holbrooke had good relations with his three bosses: the Secretary of State, the Vice President and the President. There were speculations in the beginning, when rearrangement of the South and Central Asia bureau at State department occurred to accommodate his new portfolio, that Secretary of State and Special Envoy could have a clash on policies or staff, but no such issue surfaced.

As a special envoy, Holbrooke’s influence was perhaps most directly felt at the State department. He was not shy about telling staffers that his authority was derived directly from his relationship with Clinton and Obama, according to people who have worked with him.  Although clearly “Clinton’s man” at State, Holbrooke understood better than most the importance of putting country first, putting aside the bitterness and personal racor of the 2008 campaign to serve a president whose candidacy he had not supported during the primaries.

Holbrooke appeared to be one of those intelligent and experienced diplomats who knew his job way before he took it up. In a thank you speech right after his announcement as Special Representative he said, “In putting Afghanistan and Pakistan together under one envoy, we should underscore that we fully respect the fact that Pakistan has its own history, its own traditions, and it is far more than the turbulent areas on its western border.”

As a young Foreign Service officer in the early 1960s, Holbrooke served in Vietnam. Later, under President Jimmy Carter, he became the then-youngest assistant secretary of state in history, responsible for Asia policy, at age 35. Under the Clinton administration he registered his talent, he helped put an end to the genocidal war in Bosnia in 1995, while serving as assistant secretary of state for European affairs. His reward was becoming UN ambassador during President Bill Clinton’s second term.

As special rep. Holbrooke emerged as one of the most powerful forces in the Obama administration’s foreign policy team. He had developed official as well as friendly relationships with the leaders from South Asia. His vision and understanding of the region can be gauged from this declarative statement he made last year: while expressing worry about an expanded Taliban hold over western Pakistan, he said that “You can’t send troops into Pakistan. That’s a red line.” In different meetings, whether with Pakistani diplomats, politicians, or with White House officials and military personnel, Holbrooke had been seen defending Pakistan.

Probably a reason that according to his family members, his last words to his Pakistani doctor were, “you have got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” He battled for Pakistan in Washington, he was Pakistan’s true friend.