With Spotlight On Afghanistan, Where's Holbrooke?

Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, in a May photo. i i

Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, in a May photo.

Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Sen. John Kerry took the foreign policy spotlight this past week, jetting off to Afghanistan, where he persuaded President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff vote, and meeting with officials in Pakistan.

While he was getting most of the media attention, reporters and bloggers raised the question: Where is Richard Holbrooke? He is the Obama administration's special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, so shouldn't he be dealing with these issues?

As if to answer that question, Holbrooke, 68, addressed a packed briefing room Friday at the State Department.

The official reason for Holbrooke's briefing was to talk about plans for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to go to Pakistan soon. But it sounded mainly like an attempt by Holbrooke to stop a rumor mill that suggests he is on the outs with the Obama administration.

"I'd like to make a joke and say I'm always happy to be eclipsed by John Kerry, but then you'll take it seriously, and then I'll cause more problems," Holbrooke said.

Holbrooke explained that he goes to Pakistan and Afghanistan every couple of months, but that he wanted to be in Washington while President Obama reviews U.S. strategy in the region. Obama and his national security team are reassessing the U.S. military effort and contemplating a request from the top U.S. general in Afghanistan to send tens of thousands more troops there.

"The period since I was last in Afghanistan has been, as I already said, the most intense policy-review period I've ever experienced in my government career. And my job was to be here to help Secretary Clinton and prepare for these extensive meetings in which she and I both participate," Holbrooke said.

There is some truth to that, according to Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, who has known Holbrooke for many years.

Clemons described Holbrooke as the kind of guy who wants to be in the room when the president is making decisions.

Holbrooke came to public prominence in the mid-1990s when he brokered a peace agreement among the warring factions in Bosnia that led to the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords. He was a top foreign policy adviser to Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign and to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid.

Clemons added that Holbrooke has a notoriously bad relationship with Karzai, so having Kerry meet with the Afghan leader this past week made some sense.

"I think that Holbrooke put himself in to be the bad cop, and to some degree John Kerry has become the good cop, in part, to try to move Karzai forward. But that doesn't mean that [Holbrooke] is going to disappear from the scene," Clemons said.

Holbrooke's job description has always been fairly vague.

The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has managed to put together an interagency team to better coordinate the U.S. approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, another task that will keep him in Washington fairly often, Clemons said.

"He still remains a significant part of the picture, and I don't think there's anyone yet who can supplant him or take that role," Clemons said, adding that he expects Holbrooke to stay in the job as long as he wants, "whether Karzai likes it or not."

At his briefing Friday, Holbrooke tried to dispel the notion that his poor relations with Karzai are getting in the way of his job.

"They are fine. They are correct. They are appropriate," Holbrooke said. And, if Karzai is re-elected in the runoff election Nov. 7, Holbrooke said, "we all look forward to working closely with him in pursuit of mutual goals."

As for the runoff, Holbrooke said there is a reasonable hope that there will be less fraud this time around, in part because there are only two candidates now: Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister. There are also more U.S. forces in place than there were during the first round of voting in August.

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