WASHINGTON — Richard C. Holbrooke, the hard-charging diplomat who brokered peacein the Balkans and then took on an even tougher task as the Obamaadministration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, died Monday nightat age 69.
Holbrooke, whose career spanned nearly five decades, was a forceful presenceboth in U.S. foreign policy whether in or out of office. He negotiated the 1995Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia; served as ambassador to theUnited Nations and to Germany, and mentored a younger generation of Americandiplomats.
His death, from heart problems that sent him to the hospital late last week, isa heavy blow to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, and particularlythe president’s hopes of stabilizing Afghanistan, where nearly 100,000 U.S.troops are deployed.
Later this week, Obama is expected to announce the results of a review of U.S.policy in Afghanistan one year after the president ordered 30,000 additionaltroops to the country and a change in American strategy.
“He was one of a kind – a true statesman – and that makes his passing all themore painful,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement Mondayevening. She praised Holbrooke’s “distinctive brilliance and unmatcheddetermination.”
Holbrooke was known to legions of foreign diplomats, world leaders andjournalists as a forceful figure on the world stage, who did not brook foolslightly, had a supreme confidence in his own abilities, and a reputation as afearsome negotiator.
He was tapped days after Obama took office in 2009 to be the president’s specialrepresentative for Afghanistan and Pakistan – SRAP in diplomatic parlance – andoversee the civilian side of Obama’s policy in the region.
He assembled a large team at the State Department and oversaw a surge of U.S.civilian specialists into Afghanistan, while helping reorient U.S. policy awayfrom a fixation on drug eradication and advocating modest, achievable U.S. goalsin the war-torn country.
Holbrooke fell ill Friday during a meeting at the State Department with Clinton,and was taken to George Washington University Hospital, where he was diagnosedwith a torn aorta. He underwent 20 hours of surgery over the weekend.
Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in astatement: “This awful news is almost incomprehensible, not least of allbecause I cannot imagine Richard Holbrooke in anything but a state of perpetualmotion. He died giving everything he had to one last difficult mission for thecountry he loved.”
Holbrooke will probably be best remembered for the Dayton Accords, which endedthe bloody three-year war in Bosnia with a power-sharing deal that he negotiatedbetween bitter enemies: the Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim leaders. While Bosnia remains in many ways a divided country, the deal has prevented there-emergence of war for 15 years.
His impact in the much different arena of Afghanistan remains to be seen. Holbrooke reportedly never developed a close relationship with Obama and heclashed frequently with Afghan’s mecurial president, Hamid Karzai, hampering hiseffectiveness.
Earlier Monday, before Holbrooke’s passing, the State Department said his rolewould be filled in the interim by his deputy, foreign service officer FrankRuggiero.
Retired ambassador Christopher R. Hill, who was one of Holbrooke's deputiesduring the Dayton process, said the late diplomat "made a lot of careers,including mine."
During the negotiations over Bosnia's future, Hill said, Holbrooke wasequally in command of diplomatically vital administrative details and the bigpicture of the negotiations. "You just saw the full sweep of his strategicconcept, right down to logistics."
As seen in his Afghanistan-Pakistan assignment, Holbrooke "never shied awayfrom the tough issues. Went right at them,": said Hill, who served as U.S. pointman on North Korea and later ambassador to Iraq. He is now dean of theUniversity of Denver's Joseph Korbel School of International Studies.
While Holbrooke had a repuation for being brusque, Hill said he wasinvariably generous about sharing credit with his team--a rare trait among topofficials in Washington. "Those of us who worked with him, he always gave us alot of credit, shared the limelight," Hill said.