Holbrooke Prepares To Visit Afghanistan, Pakistan

The Obama adminstration's special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan is heading on his first trip to the region. Richard Holbrooke is perhaps best known as the architect of the Bosnian peace agreement. He will meet with regional leaders as he tries to coordinate a new administration strategy on Afghanistan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is making his first trip to region in his new job. Richard Holbrooke is perhaps best known as the architect of the Bosnian peace agreement in 1995. Now his task is to bring together regional players in South Asia to counter extremism. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Obama administration is still trying to figure out the best recipe for Afghanistan, the right mix between defense, diplomacy and development. One thing is clear: President Obama wants to take a more realistic approach than the Bush administration.

BARACK OBAMA: We are not going to be able to rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian Democracy.

KELEMEN: In that interview on NBC's "Today Show," President Obama didn't say he would back off from the development side of the mission, but he made clear that his focus is on security at the moment, as the U.S. prepares to send more troops to deal with a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida.

OBAMA: What we can do is make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for al-Qaida. What we can do is make sure that it is not destabilizing neighboring Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons. The key is we've got to have a clear objective, and there's been drift in Afghanistan over the last couple of years. That's something that we intend to fix this year.

KELEMEN: And that is what Special Representative Richard Holbrooke's job will be. State Department spokesman Robert Woods says Ambassador Holbrooke is stopping first in Europe before heading to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

ROBERT WOODS: Our foreign policy is going to be results oriented, and we're going to be consulting closely with our allies to see what additional value added they can bring, and, of course, what we can bring to the situation on the ground. But we're under no illusions about how difficult it's going to be to get Afghanistan on the proper footing.

KELEMEN: A senior European diplomat said everyone seems to be more or less the same assessment, that there's no purely military solution to Afghanistan, but you also need to be more realistic about nation building. In another difference from its predecessor, the Obama administration seems to be trying to turn up the heat on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That's according to Alexander Thier of U.S. Institute of Peace, who edited a book called "The Future of Afghanistan."

ALEXANDER THIER: There was a period of time when Karzai was viewed as indispensable, and that's always a mistake. And so I think that the pendulum is now starting to swing the other way, where people are disappointed with what's happened in Afghanistan. They - rightly, in part - lay some of the blame for what's happened in Afghanistan at Karzai's feet and are opening their minds to alternative leadership.

KELEMEN: A former Afghan diplomat who did not want to be named said the U.S. will not only have to deal with a weak central government in Afghanistan, there's also a whole host of regional challenges. In Pakistan, for instance, the Obama administration has to figure out a way to support a new civilian government while pressing the country's military to root out extremists that threatened Afghanistan. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace says Ambassador Holbrooke has a complicated mission ahead.

THIER: One of the biggest problems that Afghanistan faces is destabilizing regional competition with Pakistan and India and Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia and China and Saudi Arabia. And if we are going to overcome that, we need transform those regional dynamics into ones that promote cooperation instead of competition.

KELEMEN: Asked whether Holbrooke is the right one for the job, Thier says the former Bosnian peace negotiator and former U.N. ambassador has a record of getting parties to the table, has the trust of the president, and appreciates the enormity of the role. He says you can't ask for more than that. And a former Afghan diplomat says that unlike the Bush administration, which got side tracked by Iraq, the entire top echelon of Obama's administration seems to be focused on Afghanistan and the region.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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