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US envoy Holbrooke denies being 'missing in action'

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, has hit back at critics who have accused him of disappearing from public view amid major crises in the countries under his purview.

world Updated: Oct 22, 2009 15:16 IST

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, has hit back at critics who have accused him of disappearing from public view amid major crises in the countries under his purview.

"I didn't know I was missing in action because I was kind of busy all day," the senior diplomat said in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine blog The Cable.

Holbrooke has been unusually absent from the public arena as Afghanistan plunged into a political crisis sparked by widespread fraud in the presidential election, and Pakistan suffered a string of attacks and then launched a major counter-militant operation.

"Like many, we wonder what happened to Mr Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who established a bureaucratic fiefdom at the State Department but has been neither seen nor heard from during this critical period," the New York Times wrote in an October 20 editorial.

The fact that the top diplomat, who was appointed to coordinate US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan early on in US President Barack Obama's term, is not known for shrinking from the media spotlight only deepened suspicions in Washington.

McClatchy news agency blog Nukes and Spooks reported, based on three unnamed administration sources, that Holbrooke had been ordered by the White House to keep out of the public eye while US officials worked behind the scenes on the Afghan crisis.

Negotiations seeking to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept a second-round presidential vote were largely handled by Democratic Senator John Kerry.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Kerry handled the process because the Afghan leader has a fractious relationship with Holbrooke, who has been forced to deny reports he stormed out of a heated meeting with Karzai in August.

On Wednesday, he rejected any notion that Kerry was supplanting him on US policy on Afghanistan.

"Only a troublemaking journalist would think of something like that," he told The Cable.

Holbrooke said he has spoken with Kerry some 25 times during the election negotiations, though he did not attend a meeting the senator held with Obama to debrief him on the process.

He noted that Kerry's presence in the region was preplanned and related to legislation boosting US aid to Pakistan that the senator had championed.

"We encouraged John to get in on this," Holbrooke said.

"I have never seen a better interaction between a member of Congress and an executive branch on a major issue and the stakes yesterday were extraordinarily high."

At the State Department, spokesman Philip Crowley also ridiculed speculation that Holbrooke had fallen out of favor.

"The idea that he disappeared is simply not true," he said. "It is a typical Washington parlor game about who's up, who's down."

Crowley said Holbrooke remains intimately involved in policy discussions at the highest levels.

"There are every week high-level meetings here at the State Department and at the White House, as the president and his national security team review how to best implement the strategy and Richard Holbrooke is in every one of these meetings," he said.

Holbrooke told The Cable he plans to travel to Afghanistan and India next month, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Pakistan, though the dates have not yet been finalized.

The timing will depend on when Obama decides to announce his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, Holbrooke said, without hinting at when the announcement might come.

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has reportedly requested 40,000 additional troops for the conflict there.

"This is the most intense policy review before a big decision that I've ever been involved in," Holbrooke said. "He's really thinking it through."