Global Politics

True giant of American foreign policy'

Veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrooke has died following surgery to treat a torn aorta. Ambassador Holbrooke was best-known for helping to broker the Dayton Peace agreement which ended the Bosnian war. At the time of death he was President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr Obama called the 69-year-old a �true giant of American foreign policy�. Jeb Sharp reports on what Holbrooke was able to achieve in the first two years of the Obama Administration.

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Richard Holbrooke was remembered today as a towering figure in U.S. foreign policy � a brilliant, hard-charging, tireless diplomat. He was best known for his success in brokering a peace in Bosnia but his career spanned from the Vietnam War to the current conflict in Afghanistan.

Nearly two years ago he became President Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. There were some sceptics at the time.

Holbrooke was known for banging heads together and speaking bluntly to war criminals. This new job was about coordinating and corralling US policy in a region even more complicated than the Balkans. But Holbrooke sank his teeth into it as only he could.

Caroline Wadhams, Director of South Asia Security Studies at the Center for American Progress said Holbrooke made tremendous contributions to the civilian side of US efforts in both.

He tripled the number of civilians working in Afghanistan on behalf of the US government. He shifted the counter-narcotics strategy away from aerial spraying of poppy fields toward something more comprehensive and he stepped up regional diplomatic efforts.

Holbrooke also broke down bureaucratic barriers in Washington. Vali Nasr, a senior advisor to Holbrooke, said that will be one of his legacies.

�The idea of having a whole-of-government approach within one unit in order to make the US government much more effective in reaching its objectives,� Nasr said.

The interagency group Holbrooke put together for Afghanistan and Pakistan was legendary. It included outside experts, handpicked Foreign Service officers and representatives of key agencies and departments such as the FBI, the CIA, the Treasury, Homeland Security, and USAID.

Peter Bergen, Director of the National Security Studies program at the New America Foundation in Washington called Richard Holbrooke an extraordinary human being.

�If you walked into his office in the State Department for a meeting, he would turn it into a freewheeling discussion about what was going on in Afghanistan with anybody and everybody who walked in,� Bergen said. �He was very democratic in the way he ran things in his office. Anybody could offer an opinion. He encouraged dissension and argumentation and he hired some extraordinary people to work with him.�

Holbrooke needed those extraordinary people. He had taken on the most complicated and onerous assignment available with the knowledge that time was of the essence if anything was to be accomplished. And now he has left the stage at a critical moment. Bergen thinks the job will continue but it won't be the same.

�No one's going to fill Ambassador Holbrooke's shoes,� Bergen said. �By sheer dint of personality he's one of the most unusual Foreign Service officers, diplomats the United States has ever seen. They will find someone else to do the job but it won't be done with quite his passion and ability to get things done.�

Bergen said the only person who comes to mind who might fit the bill going forward is the three-star general and current US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

�This is not a job where you just put in somebody who's very bright,� Bergen said. �The learning curve is enormously steep to understand the complexities. You'd need someone who doesn't need 6 months to get up to speed. �

It's not just Holbrooke's experience and stature that are gone; it's his advocacy of civilian issues as a route to peace. Caroline Wadhams worries about that loss.

�He was really a force within the administration for pushing these issues forward. It's very sad, both personally, for his family and for his friends and colleagues, but also for the strategy,� Wadhams said.

That strategy is now under review and a report from the Obama Administration is imminent. It's expected to say there's been some significant progress, but there's still a long way to go. Holbrooke always knew it would be a long road but he relished the challenge.

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