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American voice in crisis

Richard C Holbrooke made a career that started with Vietnam, had a highlight with Bosnia and ended in AfPak.

world Updated: Dec 15, 2010 00:07 IST
Yashwant Raj

Richard C Holbrooke, US special representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan who shared a somewhat uneasy relationship with India, died Monday evening failing to survive a tear in the aorta suffered at work on Friday. He was 69. World condolences | Holbrooke factoid

Holbrooke had suddenly taken ill during a meeting with secretary of state Hillary Clinton on Friday at the US state department headquarters. He was taken to the nearby George Washington university hospital, where he died on Monday.

“(Holbrooke was) a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected,” said President Barack Obama in a statement issued by the White House.

He could have been secretary of state if Hillary Clinton had won the 2008 presidential election. But she lost, and so did he. He missed that job once before, to Madeline Albright during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

He had the right resume for the job, having served in nearly every hotspot that the US could afford, starting with the Vietnam War. He wrote — or so he claimed — one of the volumes of the war records later known as the Pentagon Papers.

Holbrooke’s finest hour came in Bosnia, ending the conflict there with the Dayton Accords. Many years later, after Obama took office, he threw him the Afghanistan war to wind down.

It wasn’t going to be easy. But there was recognition in the administration that to fix Afghanistan, Pakistan had to be fixed first. And thus came a curiously named job definition for Holbrooke: special representative for Af-Pak.

India was to be the third angle of his brief, but it wasn’t, having successfully lobbied the transition team of President elect Obama to exclude India from Holbrooke’s assignment for the region.

He did try and engage India though, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

But it was Afghanistan and Pakistan that he worked on tirelessly. Despite reports of differences with President Hamid Karzai, Holbrooke never gave up and was among those who pushed hard for a military surge.

A review is now underway of the US strategy in Afghanistan, entering the final stage now. But he won’t be around to find out if those big debates and battles in the White House, preceding the surge were any use.