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U.S. envoy Holbrooke denies strained ties with Karzai

Speculation is rife after the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan was absent from Sen. Kerry's key meetings with the Afghan president last week.

October 24, 2009|By Paul Richter

Reporting from Washington — The senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan sought Friday to dispel suggestions that he had been sidelined during dramatic diplomacy in Afghanistan because of his stormy relationship with the Afghan president.

Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke acknowledged that he had been in Washington, rather than Kabul, last weekend as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and other senior U.S. officials pressured a reluctant Karzai to agree to a runoff election, which has been scheduled for Nov. 7.

Holbrooke, in a State Department news conference, said he had remained in Washington to take part in deliberations on whether to overhaul the U.S. strategy and send thousands more troops to Afghanistan.

"My job was to be here to help staff [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton, and prepare for these extensive meetings in which she and I both participate," he said.

He described the deliberations, which are expected to culminate within a few weeks, as "the most intense" of his career.

Holbrooke is known as a hard charger prone to stepping on the toes of foreign diplomats and American colleagues to get his job done. He is best known for his role in the 1995 negotiations that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

U.S. and Afghan officials say his relationship with Karzai has, at times, been tempestuous, including immediately after the Aug. 20 elections. Karzai's campaign had claimed victory in the vote, but there were allegations of rampant fraud. A United Nations-backed commission this week threw out hundreds of thousands of ballots, bringing Karzai below the threshold for an outright victory.

One senior Western diplomat said last month that Karzai viewed Holbrooke as "the devil," but noted that the president has been suspicious of other U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden.

Holbrooke said his relations with Karzai were "fine, they're correct, they're appropriate." If Karzai wins the runoff, "we all look forward to working closely with him in pursuit of common goals," he said.

Last weekend, Kerry, who is chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spent nearly 20 hours in meetings in Kabul trying to persuade Karzai to accept a runoff vote. This unusual role for Kerry, who in the past had expressed an interest in becoming secretary of State, drew wide comment in Washington.

On Wednesday, President Obama and some senior staff members spent an hour in a video teleconference with Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and his deputy, Frank Ricciardone, without Holbrooke present.

Holbrooke said that he and Clinton knew about the meeting in advance, and "thought it was a great idea."

U.S. officials have insisted that reports of strains within the administration are inaccurate. One White House official described them last month as "pretty silly."

paul.richter@latimes.com

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