Snap Analysis: Holbrooke was key U.S.-Afghanistan diplomat

By Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – The sudden death of Richard Holbrooke, the hard-charging U.S. diplomat who served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, comes as President Barack Obama is trying to turn around the faltering war effort in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke, a veteran of the U.S. diplomatic scene who was best known for helping broker the 1995 accord that ended the Balkans war, died Monday at age 69. He had been taken ill on Friday and died after extensive surgery Saturday to repair a torn aorta.

His death comes as Washington is looking to show progress in stabilizing Afghanistan, where violence has surged this year to its highest level since 2001, and in dealings with Pakistan, which Washington is pressuring to go after militants fueling violence in both countries. Thursday, Obama is due to make public a strategy review on the region.

Holbrooke’s death is a setback to the civilian team working on the region. But while he held a key post, the U.S. military role in Afghanistan has eclipsed that of civilian officials, even those at Holbrooke’s level, with close to 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground and U.S. General David Petraeus commanding a total foreign force of almost 150,000 soldiers.

Below are several issues to watch in the coming months:

A CRUCIAL PERIOD AHEAD

* The first half of 2011 will be crucial in Afghanistan, where Obama is hoping to demonstrate improved security and the strengthening of the Afghan government as Western forces seek to begin putting local forces in the lead.

The U.S. military reports it is making uneven progress in Afghanistan, pointing to expanding areas of security around some cities despite an expansion of the Taliban insurgency into new areas of the country.

Thursday, the White House will announce the conclusions of a strategy review a year after Obama rolled out a revised strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Part of last year’s overhaul included a decision to send an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

If conditions allow, Obama plans to begin bringing U.S. troops home in July 2011. Facing political pressure at home, Washington’s NATO partners are increasingly looking to end their combat roles in Afghanistan.

* The United States will also try to energize civilian efforts to rebuild Afghanistan after decades of war and to strengthen its weak government institutions, a key part of Holbrooke’s portfolio.

One priority area of the “civilian surge” has been combating corruption even as a rift has appeared between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Washington over allegations Karzai has failed to ensure corrupt officials are punished.

* Holbrooke’s relationship with Karzai was strained after last year’s presidential vote. Karzai won another term in the elections, which were marred by widespread allegations of fraud and were a disappointment for U.S. officials looking for signs of stronger governance.

LIMITED LEVERAGE IN PAKISTAN

* U.S. officials see Pakistan as a linchpin to stability in Afghanistan. In 2011, the United States will continue to pressure Islamabad to go after militants who cross the border to attack NATO troops in Afghanistan.

But the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is strained by a host of sensitive issues, including a belief in Washington that elements of Pakistani intelligence may be interacting improperly with the Taliban and other insurgents, and a surge in U.S. drone strikes within Pakistan.

* Holbrooke, who was known in the 1990s as “Raging Bull” and “The Bulldozer” for the forceful tactics and cajoling he used in helping broker a deal on the Balkans, had developed a close working relationship with both President Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.

WHO COULD REPLACE HOLBROOKE?

* There are few Americans with the high-profile diplomatic credentials of Holbrooke, who held senior State Department positions and served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Germany. He was once called “Washington’s favorite last-ditch diplomat” and “America’s toughest diplomatic tactician” by Time magazine.

* One name that has been mentioned is Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq under President George W. Bush. The Afghan-born Khalilzad is seen as close to Karzai.

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad and Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul; Editing by Peter Cooney and Frances Kerry)

Snap Analysis: Holbrooke was key U.S.-Afghanistan diplomat