WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The death of veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke leaves the Obama administration with a worrying gap as it grapples with Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region crucial to U.S. security.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed Holbrooke, who died on Monday at age 69, as “one of a kind” — begging the question of whether a man of such forcefulness, tenacity and experience could or should be replaced.
State Department officials said Holbrooke’s deputy, Frank Ruggiero, will stand in as acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan as President Barack Obama prepares to release a strategy review Thursday outlining the way forward.
Ruggiero is an Afghanistan expert who as the senior civilian official in the south for a year in 2009 and 2010, worked to strengthen Afghan government in that region.
But analysts say Ruggiero has less experience with two other pieces of the puzzle: Pakistan, where Holbrooke’s forceful personal diplomacy helped push U.S. objectives, and Washington, where he was known as a bureaucratic black belt.
“I think the world of Frank Ruggiero but he’s not a Pakistan guy,” said Stephanie Sanok, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.,
“I have a really hard time envisioning anyone bringing the same energy and focus and ability to schmooze the Pakistanis that Holbrooke did.”
Clinton created the “special representative” job expressly for Holbrooke, once seen as a candidate for secretary of state, and the office inevitably took the stamp of his outsized personality.
Operating out of a suite at the State Department, Holbrooke hand picked a team of experts from different government agencies and academia to come up with innovative approaches to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Holbrooke’s focus on civilian development, which has brought U.S. aid workers to both countries, has been seen as one bright spot in a strategy that has yet to deliver major victories in the military or political arenas.
Holbrooke also took a leading role in outreach to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s civilian leadership, both sometimes less than eager to cooperate with Washington.
But with U.S. General David Petraeus commanding a total foreign force of almost 150,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and an expanding campaign by Islamic militants in Pakistan, the influence of military leaders on U.S. policy may increase, analysts say.
“There’s been a broad shift toward the military,” said Brian Katulis, a security expert at the Center for American Progress. “There were already questions about how much it was still Holbrooke’s call.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Tuesday the structure of Holbrooke’s office would remain intact for now.
But some analysts say the Holbrooke position could wind up downgraded or divided — a recognition that the job at hand may simply be too big for one person to take on.
“I don’t think they’ll abolish it, but it may change,” Katulis said.
But others said the United States has too much riding on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and will continue to need a top civilian official in charge particularly if the conflict moves toward some kind of negotiations with the Taliban, the militant Islamic group fighting both Karzai’s government and U.S. forces.
“Given that the terrorism threat involves both Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is necessary to have a high-level Washington-based official that can deal effectively in both countries,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“While Holbrooke put into place a stellar team of advisers that will continue their work, it will be important to find a successor quickly at such a crucial stage in the war.”
Names mentioned as possible replacements include former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Ann Patterson, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.
In the meantime, the team Holbrooke assembled — called “almost a cult of personality” by one analyst — may wither.
“We’re at the ‘two-year burn out,’” Katulis said. “We’re already at a natural break point, where a lot of people leave government in any case.”
Editing by Doina Chiacu