Saturday, December 03, 2011
Richard Holbrooke's Last Mission in Afghanistan by David Rohde
For four days in March 2006, Richard Holbrooke crisscrossed Afghanistan as a private citizen. The country’s resilient people and rugged landscape fascinated him. He was enthralled during a two-hour conversation with an imprisoned young Taliban militant, appalled by the American police training and counternarcotics effort, and welcomed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At a farewell dinner attended by American generals and Afghan ministers, he held forth in classic Holbrooke fashion. For thirty minutes, he laid out his vision of a sweeping new American effort in the region.
Two years later, the Obama administration named Holbrooke its special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In theory, Holbrooke should have been at the zenith of his diplomatic skills and career. Decades of work in Washington and war zones had prepared him for what he called his last mission. The then sixty-seven-year-old diplomat was determined and captivated, and carried personal ties to the region. In 1971, Holbrooke had briefly visited Afghanistan while working as a Peace Corps official.
“I saw this romantic, exotic, harmonious, multi-ethnic society,” he later told a journalist, “just a few years before it was destroyed.”
But it was not an easy task for the man famed for nearly singlehandedly bringing peace to the Balkans. His bluntness and bluster initially alienated Afghan and Pakistani officials. His perceived competitiveness with his peers compounded suspicions in Washington. And a multi-dimensional conflict, combined with nagging questions about the extent of American influence and patience, proved far less susceptible to Holbrooke’s or America’s will than the war in the former Yugoslavia.
As a journalist who covered the conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, I saw Holbrooke soar and stumble. And in a deeply personal way, I experienced his goodwill and his determination. The legendary American diplomat helped save my life—twice.