Holbrooke takes on Afghanistan and Pakistan

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MARCO WERMAN: Pakistan says the US staged two missile strikes today near its border with Afghanistan. Officials say at least 12 people were killed. Yesterday, President Obama called the region �the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism�, and he appointed one of America's veteran diplomatic troubleshooters as special representative there. Richard Holbrooke is best known for brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. The World's Jeb Sharp reports on his new challenge.

JEB SHARP: In an interview last year, Richard Holbrooke described himself as �hooked� on the problem of Afghanistan. Now he has his chance to sink his teeth into it. He didn't mince words yesterday in describing the challenge.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: American men and women and their coalition partners are fighting a very difficult struggle against a ruthless and determined enemy without any scruples at all -- an enemy that is willing to behead women who dare to teach in a school to young girls. And across the border lurks the greater enemy still: the people who committed the atrocities of September 11th, 2001.

SHARP: Given Holbrooke's reputation as a hard-charging and high-stakes negotiator, you might expect him to be dispatched to the region to hammer out some sort of grand bargain. But in fact, the word �negotiation� never came up yesterday. Instead, his first order of business is to fix a chaotic and ineffective U.S. policy. Here's how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it.

HILLARY CLINTON: Ambassador Holbrooke will coordinate across the entire government an effort to achieve United States strategic goals in the region. This effort will be closely coordinated, not only within the State Department and of course with USAID, but also with the Defense Department and under the coordination of the National Security Council.

ALEX THIER: I think the coordination of that being put into his hands is an enormous vote of confidence in his ability, and an enormously important concentration of our effort.

SHARP: Alex Thier is the editor of the new book �The Future of Afghanistan�. He notes that Holbrooke's job title is �special representative�, not �special envoy� as expected.

THIER: So it's not just a regional envoy position, although I'm sure that a critical part of the role will be negotiating particularly the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it will also be fundamentally a role of coordinating all of the different elements of U.S. foreign policy.

SHARP: And while it may not be exactly the job people were expecting him to do, corralling a messy US policy should play directly to Holbrooke's strengths. Those who worked with him at Dayton say part of his genius is a rare ability to harness the different strands of American power. Former US diplomat Daniel Serwer described working with Holbrooke in an interview last year.

DANIEL SERWER: There are very few negotiators who manage to assemble, as Dick Holbrooke did, all of the weavers of American power. He had economic assistance; he had the military sites sewn up. He had the diplomatic apparatus all working in the same direction. It's very, very rare and it was a tremendous achievement.

SHARP: But there's a cautionary note in the Holbrooke stories, too. He can be charming, but he's also described as abrasive. He's seen as a particular kind of power negotiator, used to imposing solutions. Lisa Curtis of The Heritage Foundation thinks his toughness will be an asset, especially with Pakistan, but she says he will need to be a good listener, too.

LISA CURTIS: He does not have long experience in South Asia, and of course, the situation there is much different than in the Balkans. So I think given his lack of specific experience in South Asia, he will need to be in listening mode. At least, you know, the first few weeks and months on the job.

SHARP: In listening mode or not, Richard Holbrooke is taking on another huge challenge. For The World, I'm Jeb Sharp.