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U.S. envoy Holbrooke has been there, but will it help?

Richard Holbrooke earned a nickname -- 'Raging Bull' -- in the Balkans. His mission to Afghanistan and Pakistan may be tougher.

October 08, 2009|Paul Richter

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN,, AND WASHINGTON — The American envoy's armed convoy rumbled through the dusty streets of Kabul, stopping at one polling place, then another, as Afghans voted in their first contested presidential election.

In the August heat, Richard C. Holbrooke watched the balloting, his satisfaction tinged with concern. Widespread violence had been averted. But the integrity of the election, so vital to American plans, had yet to be proved.

Mingling with people and sampling pastry sold by some children on a corner, Holbrooke said the process appeared "peaceful and orderly," but warned as he squinted at one of the complicated punch cards that "the test comes when people count the ballots."

The veteran U.S. diplomat would soon learn how true his words were. The next day, at a crisis meeting of U.S. officials monitoring the election, he was told that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's staff had begun to claim victory, and that his opponents were charging fraud.

The moment provided the first inkling of a devastating realization: Afghanistan's election had been racked by corruption. The credibility of the vote was undermined and, along with it, many of the Obama administration's plans for the country.

American officials have grudgingly come to accept the apparent inevitability of Karzai's reelection. But with international confidence in the Afghan president shattered and extremist violence rising, President Obama has undertaken a review of U.S. strategy in the region. On Wednesday, he conferred with members of his national security team -- Holbrooke included -- on how to best counter the security threat emanating from Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

As Obama's special representative, Holbrooke has struggled for almost nine months to forge a policy that would stabilize the two fragile states. He has been a leading advocate of a "go big" policy in Afghanistan. He pushed for an ambitious U.S. military presence, an intensive effort to train Afghan troops, and a drive to root out government corruption and spur economic development.

The aim was to persuade Afghans to turn their backs on insurgents and embrace their own government.

All that rode on a fair presidential election producing an outcome most Afghans and the international community could accept. With the election now stained by fraud, the question is whether the policy of deep U.S. engagement advocated by Holbrooke can still be implemented.

The question presents a late career challenge for a diplomat whose chief asset is a reputation, towering even against Washington's power peaks, for getting what he wants from foreign leaders and bureaucratic rivals. Holbrooke, 68, began his foreign service career in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War and has held senior posts under every Democratic president since Jimmy Carter, resorting to everything in his diplomatic tool kit: from argument to flattery, from threats to his legendary persistence.

These talents contributed to his perhaps most famous triumph: helping end the war in Bosnia, where his hard-charging style earned him such nicknames as "Raging Bull."

He was recruited for the job in the Obama administration by his longtime ally, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he advised during the 2008 presidential primary campaign. His closeness to Clinton had led to friction between Holbrooke and some Obama foreign policy advisors in the course of the contest, and there were questions about whether he would be too freewheeling for the team-minded, drama-averse Obama administration.

Holbrooke has refused to be drawn into a public position in the current debate roiling the administration, but his views on Afghanistan and Pakistan have been articulated for years. In a monthly column written for the Washington Post during the Democrats' years in the wilderness, he argued that stabilizing Afghanistan was a big job that deserved generous U.S. resources.

Administration officials say Holbrooke's views dominated the early inter-agency meetings on the region. Obama's advisors were keen to avoid references to "nation building," a term likely to alarm Americans who recall failed efforts to make other countries more like the United States.

But Holbrooke's approach to Afghanistan amounted to just that: expansive programs to improve the economy, public welfare and government institutions, along with huge dollops of U.S. aid.

Holbrooke values the influence that U.S. aid provides, said one American who has worked closely with him in Kabul.

"He's a leverage man," said the American. "His whole being is dedicated to finding leverage over specific actors and using it to get what he wants."

Holbrooke set out at a frantic pace to turn the Bush administration's approach to the region inside out. Where Bush praised and encouraged Karzai, Holbrooke browbeat him, complaining about government corruption and ineffectiveness.

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