WASHINGTON, (AFP) — Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and one of Washington’s most experienced diplomats, died in a US hospital Monday as the Obama administration reviews its strategy in Afghanistan.
Holbrooke, 69, was praised by President Barack Obama as “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected;” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as one of the country’s “fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants;” and by former president Bill Clinton as a man who “saved lives, secured peace, and restored hope for countless people around the world.”
Holbrooke, began his diplomatic career during the Vietnam War period, but was best known for forging the 1995 Dayton peace accords which ended the three-year war in Bosnia when Bill Clinton was president.
On Friday, while working at the State Department, Holbrooke fell ill and was rushed to a Washington hospital, where he underwent a 21-hour operation for a torn aorta.
As he was sedated and going in for surgery, Holbrooke had some stark words: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan,” he told his Pakistani surgeon, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing unnamed family members.
In his role as special US envoy, he has had the daunting task of pushing Kabul and Islamabad to work together against resurgent Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Working in tandem with US military planners in Afghanistan, Holbrooke oversaw a tripling in the number of civilians in the war-ravaged country under a year-old plan to boost the country’s agriculture, economy and civilian institutions.
There are more than 1,000 US civilian experts there now.
Under Obama’s orders, the civilian and military aspects of the nine-year-old allied intervention in Afghanistan were under an annual review and its results were due to be published this week.
The report is due to discuss what progress has been made since Obama last year deployed 30,000 extra forces there to try to turn the tide of the war and prepare to start the US troop withdrawal in July 2011.
US defense officials have said they do not expect a change in course as a result of the review, seeing improvements in the security situation even though government corruption and Pakistani reluctance to pursue insurgent safe havens remain big problems.
Holbrooke was a ruthless negotiator. With a broad chest and measuring nearly two meters (6-foot-2) tall, he earned nicknames like “The Bulldozer” and “Raging Bull” for his relentless style.
But while this trait served him well staring down the likes of Slobodan Milosevic at Dayton, it did not always help when dealing with other team players.
Vice President Joe Biden, for example, described Holbrooke as “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met” in Bob Woodward’s 2010 book, “Obama’s Wars.”
The blunt Holbrooke reportedly clashed with both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
And while Biden nevertheless agreed that Holbrooke was probably the best choice for the job, Woodward wrote that Obama never warmed up to him, and by late 2009 Holbrooke was losing faith with Afghan mission.
A 2010 bombshell piece in Rolling Stone magazine that led to Stanley McChrystal’s ouster as top US commander in Afghanistan saw the general and his aides heap scorn on US diplomats and decisionmakers, including Holbrooke.
In the article, an unnamed McChrystal aide said the general viewed Holbrooke as a “wounded animal” fearful for his job and therefore “dangerous.”
After making headlines when he took the job, Holbrooke was unusually absent from the public arena in 2009 – fueling suspicions that he had been sidestepped – as Afghanistan plunged into a political crisis sparked by fraud in the presidential election, and Pakistan launched a major counter-militant operation.
Holbrooke nevertheless maintained a hectic travel schedule, and was in Islamabad as recently as last month.
His health has at times been a concern. He underwent tests in New York in April for possible blocked arteries, though doctors gave him the all-clear to travel.
Holbrooke often had been spoken of as a future secretary of state – he was a finalist under president Bill Clinton, losing out to Madeleine Albright. He was also the front-runner for the job had Democrat John Kerry defeated Republican George W. Bush in the 2004 election. And when Obama took office, was passed over in favor of Hillary Clinton.
The State Department announced that his job would be temporarily taken over by Holbrooke’s deputy, Frank Ruggiero, a career diplomat.
Praise for Holbrooke’s work poured in from around the world, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Britain, Australia, and China.