ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani officials today mourned the death of longtime diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, who they said played a pivotal role over the past two years in working to improve relations between the United States and its strategic ally.
Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, died Monday in Washington after undergoing surgery on his torn aorta.
Pakistan’s highest-ranking politicians said the country had lost a friend in Holbrooke, who was praised for his tireless efforts to promote peace in the region, and added that his death left a “huge vacuum” in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Holbrooke’s death indeed comes at a time of renewed tension between the two allies.
Washington has welcomed recent operations by the Pakistani army in the country’s tribal region but continues to pressure Pakistan’s military to do more to root out Pakistan-based insurgent groups that are launching attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the intensification of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan’s border area and the recent release of diplomatic cables in which U.S. officials are quoted overtly criticizing the Pakistani government have fueled mistrust and resentment toward Americans despite a significant increase in nonmilitary aid.
“His unfortunate demise comes at a critical moment in Pakistan-U.S. relations,” said Najam Sethi, political analyst and editor-in-chief of the Friday Times, a Lahore-based political weekly. “There will be a loss of continuity.”
In January 2009, President Barack Obama named Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of the most important — and challenging — diplomatic assignments there is. Holbrooke made frequent visits to the region. He worked hard to highlight the crucial role Pakistan plays in the resolution of the Afghan conflict and push Pakistani authorities to intensify their fight against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other insurgent groups that have settled in the country’s mountain regions.
Holbrooke did not limit his diplomatic efforts to strategic causes, however, and he made frequent appeals to Americans and the international community for assistance to victims of this summer’s devastating floods, which put one-fifth of the country under water and displaced millions.
Official reactions in Pakistan unanimously praised Holbrooke’s commitment and diplomatic skills. President Asif Ali Zardari, who had called Holbrooke’s wife as he was in critical condition, called him a friend of Pakistan who was a key player in “confronting militancy in our part of the world.” He said his services would be long remembered.
“The best tribute to him is to reiterate our resolve to root out extremism and usher in peace,” Zardari said in a statement.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Holbrooke was “a man of great qualities” who “helped lay the solid foundation for a broad-based relationship based on mutual respect, trust and interest.” Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, said Holbrooke was a personal friend with whom he had made plans to go to a movie over the weekend before Holbrooke fell ill. He said Holbrooke “showed great compassion for the people of Pakistan and was a strong supporter of Pakistan's progress and security as a modern Muslim democratic country.”
Holbrooke had also gained supporters in this Muslim-majority nation for negotiating the 1995 Dayton Agreement that put an end to the Bosnian War in which scores of Bosnian Muslim civilians died. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, said he would always remember Holbrooke “as the man who saved the Muslims of Bosnia.”
Always difficult, diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan encountered a new challenge when WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables in which former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson said the civilian government was “weak, ineffectual and corrupt.” Pakistani officials mentioned in the leaked documents have by and large declined to comment publicly or have tried to cast doubt over the authenticity of the memos.
Nethi said the tension over the WikiLeaks revelations will eventually subside, but questions in Pakistan will remain over the U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan. NATO officials have stated a goal for major combat operations Afghanistan to cease by the end of 2014, but Pakistan has expressed its concerns over a premature departure of U.S. troops that would let Pakistanis deal with the consequences at home.
Nethi said that in this context Holbrooke’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy will be hard to replace. Holbrooke had shown an increased understanding of the complexities of the region, Nethi said, including the major role that India plays in Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Nethi said Holbrooke’s death is a big blow to U.S. diplomacy but added that it could also offer the Obama administration an opportunity to put recent embarrassments such as the WikiLeaks disclosures behind.
“Maybe it’s time for a fresh start,” Nethi said. “Much will depend on the new man selected to replace him.”
Holbrooke's deputy, Frank Ruggiero, is filling in on an acting basis.