Will Richard Holbrooke’s death impact US policy?

Richard C. Holbrooke, President Barak Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – two very hot items for the current US administration – died earlier this week at age 69. Holbrooke’s unexpected death leaves behind much unfinished work in the region. It also leaves mixed reaction to the work he has carried out in South Asia.

By Claude Salhani

Published: Sun 19 Dec 2010, 9:57 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:17 AM

In his defense, however, it is safe to say that his assignment was quite possibly one of the most difficult and demanding jobs anyone in Washington could have had, given the intricacies and complications in the two countries’ politics. Still, in the eyes of the current administration there was no doubt of this diplomat’s abilities at carrying out US policy under strenuous circumstances. Indeed, the president gave him two of the thorniest dossiers of the last decade or so.

Anyone who has ever set foot in either of the two countries Holbrooke was responsible for will tell you that there will hardly ever be any really peaceful settlement to either Pakistan’s or Afghanistan’s problems. The inter-tribal animosity and deep-rooted hated that permeates Afghan and Pakistani politics goes back centuries. And no matter how experienced and agile a Western diplomat might be, given the history in that region, he stands little chance of forging any real breakthrough.

Regardless of what progress Holbrooke may have accomplished, or lack thereof, the White House called him a “giant of diplomacy.” Though according to US media reports citing sources in South Asia, the region Holbrooke was responsible for, the feelings held by the White House for Holbrooke were not shared by the people on the ground.

In the Afghan capital, Kabul, Holbrooke was considered somewhat “out of touch with the society and too combative to forge a meaningful partnership with Afghanistan’s leadership,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Reports speak of much “bad blood” between Holbrooke and the government of Hamid Karzai. The Pakistanis however took a different approach, where the American diplomat was “lauded as a seasoned envoy who earnestly tried to strengthen Washington’s fragile alliance with the country.”

Yet despite the turmoil and upheaval in both countries, there remains a certain amount of lucidity even among those who did not support his tactics. Both Afghanis and Pakistanis who disagreed with Holbrooke think that his sudden death could bring about a setback in US foreign policy in the region. A foreign policy described by one American newspaper as “wobbly.”

Wobbly is one way of looking at South Asia’s politics. Another analogy that comes to mind is the tango, where typically dancers take one step forward and two steps back. Regardless of how one looks at South Asian politics, be it wobbly or a tango, the fact remains that US politics in this part of the world is a difficult game to play given the great cultural differences that persist.

One prime example is the way each side looks at time. Americans are typically obsessed by time and want everything accomplished as quickly as possible. Most US administration’s policies are planned out on a four-year basis, from one US presidential election to the next.

America’s detractors and foes on the other hand are under no such constraints. The Taleban and Osama bin Laden have long ago thrown away their calendars and clocks. If they can project a victory in 300 years they would be contented. Washington, by contrast, tries to get policy implemented in 30 days. The other great foe for Washington’s efforts is the lack of continuity in foreign affairs. Given that much changes with every new administration, many in the rest of the world have accused Washington of suffering from attention deficit disorder when it comes to foreign policy.

With Holbrooke gone and the US presidential elections now less than two years away, Washington has already begun to go into re-election mode and chances of Holbrooke being replaced before 2012 are slim. For some in the developing world this could serve to reinforce their belief that doing business with Washington remains a very difficult endeavour. But with no other super power left, what choice do they really have?

Claude Salhani in a political analyst based in Washington

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