Monday's death of Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has caught many in the foreign policy world by surprise and has left them ruminating about where Afghan strategy goes from here. Holbrooke was a dedicated and effective diplomat, most well-known for brokering the Dayton Peace accords in 1995, ending the war in Bosnia.
Holbrooke's objective in Afghanistan from the beginning of his appointment was peace. He was charged with the civilian and diplomatic side of the Afghanistan War. According to the Washington Post, while he put on a positive attitude in public, he was privately frustrated with officials involved with the war, believing that they did not approach the conflict with the liveliness and briskness necessary.
Vice President Joe Biden, chosen by President Obama during the campaign partially for his foreign policy experience, called Holbrooke "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met." While Biden was willing to give Holbrooke a chance saying maybe he was right for the job, former Obama national security adviser James L. Jones felt differently. Jones let Obama know that he would have liked Holbrooke to be fired, but Secretary of State Clinton intervened and Holbrooke remained on the staff.
If relations in Washington were not picture-perfect, then Kabul and Islamabad offered worse scenarios.
The Washington Post called Holbrooke's relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai "erratic." Holbrooke tried -- unsuccessfully -- to end the corruption that ravages Karzai's administration. Key projects, such as replacing opium crops with wheat or building infrastructure were railroaded in part by corruption. Holbrooke's efforts may have been hamstrung from the get-go as he may not have even been taken seriously by Karzai and his people. Karzai's legal adviser told the Washington Post, "His death will not have an impact on the situation in Afghanistan at all. He was paying more attention to Pakistan and India rather than Afghanistan."
While Islamabad had much better things to say about Holbrooke following his death, it is common knowledge that actions speak louder than words. Despite Holbrooke's willingness to garner Pakistan more and more aid, the country's corruption and lack of gastrointestinal fortitude to rout out extremist insurgents in the country has negated much of his work. Holbrooke needed Pakistan to meet him halfway -- something Islamabad seemed unwilling to do.
The man slated to fill Holbrooke's shoes is Frank Ruggiero, Holbrooke's deputy. Ruggiero has almost two years of on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan and was also the head of the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs prior to his assignment in Afghanistan. This will be crucial to navigate the gray area between military and civilian relations in the country.
But for Ruggiero's experience, the wild card here is Holbrooke's ability to out-negotiate anyone else. Anyone who dealt with Holbrooke has built him up to this mythic character when it comes to personality and bargaining. This is a role that Ruggiero-or anyone for that matter-may not be able to fill.
It seems that Holbrooke's death may affect Afghan policy little. Though a devoted statesman and a very intelligent man, Holbrooke seemed to be either outright ignored by top administration officials both at home and abroad or simply appeased by domestic officials while other plans were undertaken anyway. What will change, however, is that Afghanistan has lost a dedicated and talented advocate for peace and nation building.