01.08.11

Richard Holbrooke's Doomed Successor

Frank Ruggiero may well be the best diplomat to fill the shoes of the towering Holbrooke as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s the job itself that is impossible.

Frank Ruggiero was having a drink with a State Department official at The Duck and Cover, a bar tucked inside a trailer that was surrounded by sandbags, at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. It was the fall of 2009 and the staffer, Matthew Hoh, who reported to Ruggiero, had decided to resign in protest of the war.

State Department officials were upset with Hoh’s decision to take a public stance and, as Ruggiero told him at the bar, Richard Holbrooke, the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was determined to convince him to stay, even throwing in a promotion to sweeten the deal. “I told him, ‘All you’re going to do is insult him,’” Hoh recalls Ruggiero saying.

Ruggiero recognized a principled stance when he saw one; besides, he was a good listener. “He was willing to sit back and go into receive mode,” says Hoh. Ruggiero is “intelligent, personable,” says a retired Army officer who met him in Kandahar, and “a really nice guy,” says C. Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist.

These traits, patience and reserve, will come in handy as Ruggiero takes on the job as acting special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also distinguish him from Holbrooke, a towering figure known for having “an ego as big as his talent,” as one former official puts it. Indeed, many people in Washington agree with Fair’s assessment: “His first advantage is that he’s not Holbrooke.”

More than a year and a half into his tenure, Holbrooke had still failed to convince people of the office’s “value add,” as one expert put it. And that was Holbrooke. The job was too much for him, and it is likely beyond Ruggiero, too.

Indeed, the whole contraption, created by Hillary Clinton as a way of bringing Holbrooke into her orbit, was doomed from the start. The office was originally designed to help coordinate the government’s strategic efforts in South Asia, a complex bureaucracy that encompasses the State Department, Defense Department, AID, and the National Security Council. Holbrooke’s A-team dwelled outside the bureaucratic structure, and it was not clear how responsibilities for Pakistan and Afghanistan would be divided up, nor could anyone identify the boundaries between experts in the special representative’s office and those at the NSC.

“I was concerned that it would be a parallel NSC staff,” says John Wood, who served as the senior director for Afghanistan on George W. Bush’s National Security Council and for a short time under Obama. “I saw it as duplicative.” In Pakistan and Afghanistan, things were worse. Officials in Islamabad complained that Holbrooke tried to push them around, and they were not sure how much authority he had. In Kabul, says a military adviser, it was easy to ignore him.

“He would try to get stuff done,” the adviser recalls. “And people would say, ‘Yeah, you only work for State.’” Holbrooke ran into immense problems as special representative, and his death on December 13 has left the future of the office uncertain.

In truth, whether officials decide to install Ruggiero as the special rep, hire a star, or reorganize the flow chart is beside the point.

Frank Ruggiero, who turned down an interview request citing his travel schedule, has the right credentials for the job. A Youngstown, Ohio, native who has a master’s degree in Middle Eastern affairs from American University, he has previously worked as acting assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs. Equally important, he served as the senior U.S. Embassy official in southern Afghanistan from July 2009 to July 2010, dealing with some tough characters and ending up in the WikiLeaks cache.

According to one cable, Ruggiero met in a “wood-paneled room” in Kandahar with Provincial Council Chief Ahmed Wali Karzai, who “appeared nervous” and was “widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.” Ruggiero may have experience with shady operators in Afghanistan, yet he’s facing a truly daunting assignment in Washington. Some experts say he should step aside and allow for a high-profile person to take over— Bruce Riedel, a former CIA guy, has been mentioned—but it is hard to see how Riedel would do much better within this jerry-built structure.

The portfolio of special representative’s office, known as SRAP, is limited to Pakistan and Afghanistan, while India and Iran have been shut out, and this restricted purview makes it nearly impossible for anyone to be an effective broker. Instead of trying to salvage the office, administration officials should close up shop and let ambassadors Cameron Munter in Islamabad and Karl Eikenberry in Kabul do their jobs.

In truth, whether administration officials decide to install Ruggiero as the new special rep, hire a big-name star, or reorganize the flow chart is beside the point, since none of that will solve the real problem in Afghanistan. As Matthew Hoh once asked, “Do you want Americans fighting and dying for the Karzai regime?” Sadly, the failures of President Hamid Karzai affect not only the American troops, but also millions of people who live in the region.

“Irrespective of who becomes the head of SRAP,” as Christine Fair says, “Afghanistan is fucked.” That is a situation no special representative, no matter how affable or magnificent, can fix.

A frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, Tara McKelvey is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy on Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War.