KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Richard Holbrooke’s successor as Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan will inherit intractable problems not even the “bulldozer” of U.S. diplomacy was able to resolve.
The increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, inseparably intertwined with Pakistan where Taliban fighters have so long been able to seek sanctuary, has baffled U.S. diplomats, politicians and military commanders for nine years.
Pakistan also offers unique challenges: a fragile democracy, its own home-grown Islamist militants like the Taliban, weak infrastructure and a powerful military, and a deep and abiding mistrust of India, its proxy war opponent in Afghanistan.
“Whether you deal with Pakistani officials or Afghan officials, it’s not a matter of bullying, it’s a matter of sending strong signals and that unfortunately hasn’t been done as effectively as it should have been, even by Ambassador Holbrooke,” said Samina Ahmed, South Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Rebuilding relationships will be among the priorities if a new envoy is appointed to replace Holbrooke, who died on Monday after heart surgery aged 69.
Holbrooke’s directness helped corral warring Balkans leaders into talks that led to the signing of the 1995 Dayton accord, his crowning diplomatic achievement.
But that did not always play well in the Afghan capital, an intricate knot of political, ethnic, tribal and religious complications each requiring their own delicate touch.
Holbrooke’s relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai had been uneasy since the pair clashed over allegations of widespread voter fraud in presidential elections in August 2009.
Karzai had said he was “greatly moved” to hear that Holbrooke had taken ill, but his message of condolence to Holbrooke’s family on Tuesday made no mention of the veteran U.S. diplomat’s work in Afghanistan, which he had visited frequently.
“Richard Holbrooke was a capable and experienced diplomat in America’s politics and during his career had carried out great services for the American people,” Karzai said in the message released by the presidential palace.
The uneasy relationship was illustrated by U.S. diplomatic cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, which described Karzai as a “weak” and “overly self-conscious” leader prone to America-bashing and who did not grasp state-building.
Washington has long been critical of corruption in Afghanistan, which it believes weakens the central government’s control and makes it harder to build state institutions like the security forces so that Afghans can eventually take over.
There are now about 150,000 foreign troops -- two-thirds of them American -- in Afghanistan, yet violence across the country is at its worst since the Taliban were toppled in 2001.
U.S. and NATO commanders have claimed some recent success in reversing the Taliban’s momentum, mainly since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered in an extra 30,000 troops a year ago.
Analysts and commanders acknowledge those successes cannot be seen as lasting unless they hold for at least six months.
The diplomatic high-wire act in Afghanistan has become even more daunting now that NATO leaders have agreed to meet Karzai’s ambitious timetable for foreign troops to end combat missions and hand security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
“What his successor will have to do is not only take up from where the thread was left, but possibly deal with yet another set of challenges as the U.S. moves into transition mode in Afghanistan,” said ICG’s Ahmed.
Holbrooke’s death came just days before Obama will complete a review of his Afghanistan war strategy this week but analysts say his loss will likely be felt more keenly in policy toward Pakistan, and it will be up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take the lead.
“The most important thing in regards to Pakistan is the U.S. must speak with one policy voice,” Ahmed said. “The problem with U.S. policy toward Pakistan has been too many actors, too many diverse interests, too many mixed messages.”
Holbrooke’s direct style was also felt among the international aid community in Pakistan, where he tried to funnel more aid through Pakistani government and non-government organizations, sometimes putting other noses out of joint.
“He is seen to have put to an end or canceled a number of development programs that were developed over a long period of time,” Ashley Barr, a development worker with years of experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Reuters in Islamabad.
She said there had been complaints Holbrooke had tried to incorporate work by U.S. Agency for International Development into a wider civilian counterinsurgency strategy, just like in
Afghanistan, which aid workers thought was outside their mission.
Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in ISLAMABAD and Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.