Richard Holbrooke’s Last Mission in Afghanistan by David Rohde

In an excerpt from a new book, The Unquiet American, journalist David Rohde salutes Richard Holbrooke’s vision and effectiveness in Afghanistan—and remembers how he was saved by him, twice.

For four days in March 2006, Richard Holbrooke crisscrossed Afghanistan as a private citizen. The country’s resilient people and rugged landscape fascinated him. He was enthralled during a two-hour conversation with an imprisoned young Taliban militant, appalled by the American police training and counternarcotics effort, and welcomed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At a farewell dinner attended by American generals and Afghan ministers, he held forth in classic Holbrooke fashion. For thirty minutes, he laid out his vision of a sweeping new American effort in the region.

Two years later, the Obama administration named Holbrooke its special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In theory, Holbrooke should have been at the zenith of his diplomatic skills and career. Decades of work in Washington and war zones had prepared him for what he called his last mission. The then sixty-seven-year-old diplomat was determined and captivated, and carried personal ties to the region. In 1971, Holbrooke had briefly visited Afghanistan while working as a Peace Corps official.

“I saw this romantic, exotic, harmonious, multi-ethnic society,” he later told a journalist, “just a few years before it was destroyed.”

But it was not an easy task for the man famed for nearly singlehandedly bringing peace to the Balkans. His bluntness and bluster initially alienated Afghan and Pakistani officials. His perceived competitiveness with his peers compounded suspicions in Washington. And a multi-dimensional conflict, combined with nagging questions about the extent of American influence and patience, proved far less susceptible to Holbrooke’s or America’s will than the war in the former Yugoslavia.

As a journalist who covered the conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, I saw Holbrooke soar and stumble. And in a deeply personal way, I experienced his goodwill and his determination. The legendary American diplomat helped save my life—twice.

Instead of simply giving up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke waited, narrowed his focus, and played what he called “the long game.” While much has been written of Holbrooke’s struggles, he achieved a great deal in the region. In his final year, he revitalized his relationship with Afghan and Pakistani leaders, enjoyed policy victories in Washington, and achieved diplomatic breakthroughs in the region. A man stereotyped as a publicity-seeking egotist kept many of those successes secret.

Sadly, just as his labors began to bear fruit, on December 11, 2010, he collapsed in a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her ornate office on the State Department’s seventh floor. Two days later, he passed away before his strategy could be put to the test.

Four lessons emerge from Holbrooke’s effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. First, the period represents the culmination of Holbrooke’s approach to diplomacy. The techniques he used, open internal debate he encouraged, and team he assembled are a model for aspiring diplomats.

Second, Afghanistan reaffirmed Holbrooke’s lifelong belief that American foreign aid programs must empower local governments and officials. When impatient American aid workers or troops do the work of local officials, it creates a destructive dependency, he argued, that delegitimizes local governments and draws the United States into quagmires.

Third, Holbrooke’s fervent work in Pakistan showed the indispensable value of sophisticated, respectful, and passionate diplomacy in the field. By repeatedly journeying to Pakistan, candidly engaging officials and the Pakistani public, and responding pragmatically to a traumatic natural disaster, Holbrooke did more than any other American official since 2001 to ease long-running Pakistani mistrust of the United States.

And fourth, Holbrooke lived the ultimate life of service. After joining the State Department at twenty-one and serving every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy, he accepted a virtually impossible assignment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke died, literally, while serving his nation and showed all Americans the value, dignity, and worth of public service.

Personal and professional passions drove Holbrooke’s decision to return to Afghanistan in 2006, according to family and friends. A successful New York investment banker, he did not need to survey a war overshadowed by the spiraling conflict in Iraq. On a personal level, though, Holbrooke wanted to see what had become of the Afghanistan he visited as a young man. And on a professional level, he made the trip in his capacity as chairman of the Asia Society, an organization he believed needed to focus more on South Asia.

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When he arrived in Kabul, Holbrooke despaired over the physical destruction of the country, and expressed shock at the ongoing suffering of the Afghan people—particularly once-independent urban women now clad in burqas.

Throughout his life, Holbrooke’s diplomacy often centered on the sufferings of individuals. A refugee he met in Bosnia inspired his work there. HIV-positive women he met in Namibia fueled his AIDS activism. In one of his first press conferences in Kabul, he told Afghan journalists that he hoped to help re-create the peaceful Afghanistan he drove across over three decades earlier.

After his 2006 trip, he devoured books and reports on the country and found any excuse to consult with regional experts. He also employed one of his favorite habits: mining journalists for what they knew. Holbrooke invited me to lunch in December 2006 to discuss my experience covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for The New York Times since 2001. He listened as I described the need for a larger American effort in the region—and then interrupted me.

“We can’t force Pakistan to accept democracy,” I remember him saying.

“It will never work.”

Holbrooke was eager for the United States to avoid the slow escalations that entangled it in Vietnam. For him, one of the central lessons of Vietnam was the danger of not deeply studying a complex foreign policy problem before acting. In March 2008, Holbrooke returned to Afghanistan, again as a private citizen, and embedded with American troops in the eastern province of Khost. Impressed by the local governor, the commanding American military officer, and the American diplomat serving there, he hailed them in a monthly column he wrote for The Washington Post.

He also tried to lower expectations and talked about the importance—and dangers—of American intervention. One of his largest fears was that a sweeping American presence in Afghanistan would create dependence and inadvertently undermine the local government, as he had seen in Vietnam. American good intentions, he warned, could prolong the conflict in Afghanistan.

“With each tactical achievement, Afghanistan will become more dependent on international support,” Holbrooke wrote. “Will short-term success create a long-term trap for the United States and its allies, as the war becomes the longest in American history?”

Nine months later, Holbrooke did not hesitate when then president-elect Obama and Hillary Clinton offered him the position of special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite warnings from numerous friends that he was doomed to fail, Holbrooke embraced a seemingly hopeless undertaking. His decision to accept was driven both by his desire for the limelight and, critically, by the same call to public service that had caused him to join the foreign service after graduating from Brown.

Holbrooke, who had always argued that people were the difference between good and bad policy, immediately began assembling what he described as an all-star team of advisers and aides. As he had throughout his career, he hired people with little government experience and broke bureaucratic protocol.

On the night before his appointment was announced, he reached out to Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American academic known for his knowledge of Pakistan. Three months later, on a shuttle flight from Washington to New York, he made an impromptu job offer to Rina Amiri, an Afghan-American expert on Afghan politics and a former U.N. official.

He was equally creative inside the government. After Steve Berk, an obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture official who had briefly served in Afghanistan, sent Holbrooke an unsolicited email detailing his thoughts on agriculture in Afghanistan, Holbrooke made him a job offer. When Vikram Singh, a young aide to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, impressed Holbrooke during a trip, he hired him as well.

While the offers may have seemed spontaneous, Holbrooke was acting strategically. When it was complete, his thirty-member team had ties to every government organization vital to the office’s success. Treasury, Defense, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Justice as well as USAID, the FBI, the Joint Staff, and the British and German governments were all represented.

Holbrooke exhibited little of his famed imperiousness and constantly encouraged, challenged, and supported his staff, according to former aides on his Afghanistan-Pakistan team. Over the years, his abrasiveness appeared to have mellowed. He worked grueling hours and pushed his staff hard, but his advisers said they relished the experience. Comparing his office to an Internet start-up, they praised the veteran diplomat for keeping the organization as flat as possible. All staff members had access to Holbrooke, they said, and he encouraged frank and honest policy discussions.

Amiri, the expert on Afghan politics, said Holbrooke insisted that she typically present the local perspective on what was occurring in Kabul, not the Washington view. “He looked at me to give the Afghan lens, not simply the objective lens,” Amiri said. “How Afghans would see things on the ground.”

In a September 2009 New Yorker profile, Holbrooke described his method as “a form of democratic centralism.”

“You want open airing of views and opinions and suggestions upward,” he said. “But once the policy’s decided, you want rigorous, disciplined implementation of it.”

His exhaustive travel reflected another abiding belief that dated to Vietnam. For Holbrooke, intricate foreign policy problems could only be understood in the field. Impatient with what he considered Washington’s glacial pace and myopic bureaucratic views, he traveled to the region once every two months.

Vietnam had also taught him to be skeptical of the American government’s ability to produce cohesive efforts in foreign countries. Whatever challenges lay inside Afghanistan, he believed that getting the White House, military, intelligence community, State Department, and Congress to unite behind—and implement—a multifaceted plan was extraordinarily difficult.

“One thing he definitely understood was the daunting complexity of Washington,” said Nasr, the Pakistan expert on Holbrooke’s staff. “He knew what the strength of the United States was. And he knew its weaknesses.”

In his 1970 Foreign Policy essay “The Machine That Fails”, Holbrooke—then a young foreign service officer who had been in government for just eight years—warned of the cumbersome nature of Washington’s foreign policy apparatus. Despite repeated efforts to rein them in, multiple government agencies—as well as multiple bureaus within the State Department—pursued their own bureaucratic interests and projects.

“Over time, each agency has acquired certain ‘pet projects’ which its senior officials promote,” Holbrooke wrote. “These are often carried out by one agency despite concern and even mid-level opposition from others.”

Lastly, Holbrooke was wary of the tendency of American diplomats and aid workers to bypass slow-moving or corrupt foreign officials and do things themselves. Too large an American effort created passivity, he believed, and undermined the local government in the long term.

“That creates a dependency culture,” Holbrooke said in a 2009 Charlie Rose interview. “I saw that when I was a young diplomat in Vietnam. I’ve seen that in other parts of the world.”

And in a final nuance often misunderstood by many American liberals, Holbrooke believed in the use of military force in certain circumstances. His mind—and his thinking—was supple. Holbrooke, according to his aides, saw the use of force as an instrument that might lead to a negotiated settlement. He viewed diplomacy and military force as tools that complement one another, not as stark alternatives.

“It was never black and white,” said a former aide. “In Holbrooke’s mind, military pressure was the key to any political effort.”

When Holbrooke tried to apply these lessons to South Asia after taking office in 2009, he struggled. India was not part of his diplomatic brief, putting the central dynamic that destabilized the region—India-Pakistan tensions—out of his reach. Pakistani leaders despised the term “AfPak”—an expression Holbrooke had championed—because they felt it equated their nuclear-armed nation with its far poorer and smaller neighbor, Afghanistan.

Like all of us, Holbrooke made mistakes as well. His blunt manner and habit of talking to the press initially alienated Afghan and Pakistani leaders. Before an April 2009 trip to Islamabad, Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen, the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly alluded to ties between Pakistani intelligence and the Afghan Taliban.

For years, American and Pakistan analysts had accused Pakistani military intelligence of supporting the Afghan Taliban as a proxy force to prevent India from gaining influence in Afghanistan. This public airing of the issue, though, infuriated military officials in Pakistan.

Holbrooke’s initial relations with Karzai were even more contentious. Before taking office, Holbrooke publicly criticized the Afghan president in his March 2008 Washington Post column. He disparaged Karzai for failing to arrest an infamous Afghan warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, after he attacked, brutalized, and nearly killed a rival commander in Kabul.

“The effect on Karzai’s standing and reputation has been enormous,” Holbrooke wrote. “Excuses were made, but none justified his open disregard for justice.”

In his first meeting with Karzai as special representative in February 2009, Holbrooke reportedly lectured the Afghan leader. Six months later, their relationship unraveled after Karzai supporters committed widespread fraud in the 2009 Afghan presidential elections.

According to media accounts, Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry, then the American ambassador in Kabul, met with Karzai to discuss the race the day after the balloting. The Afghan president and Holbrooke clashed when the American diplomat asked Karzai if he would accept a runoff election. Karzai insisted he had won the required 50 percent of votes and there was no need for a runoff. Holbrooke, though, refused to drop the issue.

“Holbrooke was extremely blunt with Karzai,” said a former aide. “You cannot behave this way in Afghanistan. This is not the Balkans.”

Within days, the BBC reported that Holbrooke’s meeting with Karzai had been “explosive” and a “dramatic bust up.” Holbrooke insisted the meeting had not been confrontational, but the story went viral. Across Afghanistan and the Web, Holbrooke was portrayed as Karzai’s American taskmaster.

In Washington, Holbrooke struggled as well. Fairly or unfairly, his prominence made his job more difficult. Holbrooke could be exhausting, even to his staunchest allies and defenders. His rivals in Washington looked for the slightest indication of his famed ego or misbehavior. His friend Hillary Clinton repeatedly had to defend him. Stories of his difficulties inevitably found their way into the press.

It was widely reported, for instance, that officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development deeply resented a push by Holbrooke to funnel more aid through Afghan ministries and reduce the role of American contractors. Holbrooke’s goal was to lessen Afghan dependency, but many reportedly believed the Karzai government was too weak and corrupt to handle additional aid. According to media reports, tensions between some agency officials and Holbrooke soared.

To Holbrooke’s surprise, the press—traditionally his ally—complicated his efforts. The rise of partisan cable news channels intensified Washington’s demand for instant winners and losers. Reports of waste, incompetence, and failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan overshadowed calls for patience, diplomacy, and nuance. Books and news coverage about the new administration described the clichéd Holbrooke of the 1990s—the abrasive, egocentric “bulldozer.” The public heard little of the deeply committed public servant who unleashed tremendous energy and creativity into Afghanistan and Pakistan policy discussions that for years lacked such high-level attention and care.

As 2009 came to a close, Holbrooke faced disappointment on multiple fronts. Friends advised him to resign, return to New York, and stop wasting his time on a mission impossible.

Instead, Holbrooke waited. In 2010, he learned from his mistakes, narrowed his focus, and quietly achieved successes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Washington. One of the most important was a historic July 2010 transit agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan that allowed Afghan trucks to cross Pakistani territory to deliver goods to India. The agreement lessened the stranglehold India-Pakistan tensions had put on trade in the region for decades.

In Afghanistan, he hampered the illicit flow of ammonium nitrate fertilizer—which insurgents used to make roadside bombs—from Pakistan to Afghanistan. He focused so intently on agriculture—the country’s traditional economic engine—that Clinton dubbed him “farmer Holbrooke.” And he reversed the Bush administration policy of demanding the eradication of opium crops in southern Afghanistan, a practice he and American military commanders believed increased support for the Taliban.

After months of intensive effort, Holbrooke salvaged his relationship with Karzai, according to Amiri, his adviser on Afghanistan. He met with the Afghan leader six times between January and April 2010, with the final meeting lasting over two hours. Holbrooke then used a Karzai visit to Washington in May to laud the Afghan leader with pomp, circumstance, and attention. Most importantly, he fought for Karzai’s request that the Afghan leader be allowed to carry out negotiations with the Taliban.

“He worked very hard at repairing that relationship,” Amiri said. “I think Karzai realized this was the man who could deliver reconciliation from the administration.”

In Pakistan, Holbrooke learned from his mistakes as well. He worked furiously at courting Pakistani leaders and public opinion.

“He did have a grand strategy,” said Nasr, Holbrooke’s senior adviser on Pakistan. “He believed that we needed to stabilize the government and we needed to close the gap in trust that had developed for decades.”

After mishandling his April 2009 trip to Islamabad with Mullen, Holbrooke played a central role in Hillary Clinton’s successful October 2009 trip to Pakistan. After years of American diplomats taking few questions in brief, tightly scripted press conferences, Clinton held a series of well-received public forums where she tried to address the concerns of average Pakistanis. He also encouraged American military officials to focus on developing a long-term relationship with the Pakistani military.

Holbrooke’s efforts bore the most fruit in the summer of 2010. That July, epic floods engulfed nearly 20 percent of Pakistan, unleashing the worst natural disaster in the country’s history and wiping out roads, bridges, power lines, schools, and health clinics built over decades.

Holbrooke flew to Islamabad to coordinate American relief efforts. In his element in the field, he brought decades of experience to bear. Holbrooke drove the American government bureaucracy, demanding that U.S. military helicopters be shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan to deliver aid. He met with Pakistani officials and listened to their needs. And he carefully managed the media.

Pakistani television showed images of American helicopters delivering aid to desperate flood victims. American newspapers printed photos of Holbrooke consoling Pakistani refugees. On blazingly hot days, Holbrooke reached camps for the displaced before Pakistani officials did.

To his admirers, the floods were Holbrooke at his best. On a governmental level, he fiercely pursued pragmatic policies that delivered concrete results. On a diplomatic level, he developed respectful relationships with Pakistani officials. And on a public relations level, he presented dramatic proof of American caring. Most importantly, his core human empathy suffused—and drove—the effort.

In speeches, interviews, and private conversations, Holbrooke called for a more respectful long-term relationship between the United States and Pakistan. He expressed interest in the long-term welfare of the Pakistani people. After years in which the “global war on terror” had defined the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, Holbrooke deemphasized that aspect of a relationship that he insisted must be permanent and multidimensional.

“This cannot be a transactional relationship,” he told me several months before he died. “We have to create a long-term relationship.”

Holbrooke’s diplomacy played out in unexpected ways as well. After the Obama administration worked with Congress to triple annual American civilian aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion, Holbrooke helped convince Islamabad to issue more visas to American civilians. Some of the Americans implemented aid programs. Others were dispatched to Pakistan to track terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Holbrooke did not live to see it, but one could argue his diplomacy played a small but important role in the May 2011 death of Al Qaeda’s leader.

And after nearly a year of quiet, persistent effort, Holbrooke won approval for the first meeting between American government officials and Taliban representatives since 2001. As has been widely reported in the spring of 2010, German and Qatari officials offered to set up a meeting between the two sides. Holbrooke and his staff then tirelessly worked in Washington to gain support for it. In an example of Holbrooke’s deep belief in diplomacy’s central role in ending conflicts, American government and Taliban representatives met on November 28, 2010, near Munich. Two weeks later, Holbrooke died.

In the end, the American strategy in the region adopted many of the pragmatic policies that were Holbrooke’s hallmark. Two months after Holbrooke’s death, Hillary Clinton spoke at the inaugural Richard C. Holbrooke Memorial Lecture at the Asia Society in New York. She praised Holbrooke for helping the administration mount military, civilian, and diplomatic surges in the region. She also outlined the terms and approach for the Taliban reconciliation process that Holbrooke had helped initiate in the weeks before his death.

“He had a flair for the dramatic, to be sure, but it was for more than theatrics,” Clinton said. “He understood in every cell of his body that bold action and big ideas can and will change history. After all, he did it himself, again and again.”

If the post-2001 effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan falters, it will be primarily due to continuing tensions between India and Pakistan and the limits of the international community’s influence in the region. If anyone could have succeeded in South Asia, it would have been Holbrooke, but the challenge might have proven too great even for him.

I also have a deeply personal understanding of the ferocious energy and empathy that Holbrooke brought to his diplomacy. During the war in Bosnia, Serb forces arrested me in 1995 after I discovered a mass grave near the town of Srebrenica, site of the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims. At the time, Holbrooke was at the peak of his diplomatic power. He had convened peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, to end the three-year conflict.

As my family and editors watched, Holbrooke and his wife, journalist Kati Marton, pressured Serb officials to free me. To their amazement, Holbrooke deftly rattled the Serbs. In one meeting, he picked up the Bosnian Serb vice president’s plaid wool fedora and intimidated him. “Maybe I can hold your hat hostage,” Holbrooke said. Finally, he told Serbian President Slobodan Milošević that the peace talks would be halted until my release. Days later, I was freed.

For years, Holbrooke ribbed me for complicating his already difficult Balkan peace talks. I promised him and my family it would not happen again. In November 2008, a Taliban commander proved me wrong. After inviting me to an interview outside Kabul, he kidnapped two Afghan colleagues and me and ferried us to the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Again, Holbrooke flew into action. He raised my case in meetings with senior officials in Islamabad. He forced senior Pakistani officials to meet with my wife and family in Washington. Yet Holbrooke’s pressure produced few results. At first, Pakistani generals falsely insisted that I was being held captive in Afghanistan, not Pakistan. Then they failed to act.

In an indirect way, though, Holbrooke might have saved my life. My captors scoured the web for information about me and discovered our history in Bosnia. They gleefully announced that Holbrooke was my “best friend” and that I was a “big fish.” Perhaps that made me worth more to them alive than dead.

In June 2009, we escaped from captivity, bringing a sudden resolution of a captivity that seemed destined to drag on for years. After being flown to the American military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, I was told that Holbrooke was demanding to speak with me by phone. It was a conversation I dreaded. For the second time, I had complicated a hugely complex diplomatic task Holbrooke faced. Expecting to be lambasted, I picked up the phone and said: “I apologize.” Holbrooke’s response surprised me.

“God,” he declared, his voice booming with genuine warmth and affection. “It is so good to hear your voice.”

That day, a conversation began that continued in the United States over the next several months that showed how Holbrooke had changed. Instead of chastising me, he tried to use my time with the Taliban as a means to better understand them.

“Who are they? Why are they fighting? What do they want?” Holbrooke asked, rapid-fire. A man known for his impatience then quietly listened to my long explanations. He even set up meetings with senior American officials who he thought should hear my story.

In the larger scale of events, of course, Holbrooke’s handling of my captivities is trivial. The Dayton agreement saved the lives of countless Bosnians. His work in Vietnam, China, Germany, Africa, and at the United Nations saved many others. The diplomatic groundwork he laid in Afghanistan and Pakistan may yet bring peace to tens of millions of civilians there who have endured thirty years of brutal conflict.

In the Balkans, Holbrooke had the threat of seemingly omnipotent American-led NATO air strikes to force the Serbs to make peace. In South Asia, he labored to get Pakistani generals to stop seeing the Taliban as friendly proxies they could use to thwart Indian influence in Afghanistan. It was a different conflict; in many ways, a different world. For me, Holbrooke will always be a source of inspiration. He devoted his life to public service, a notion that is now derided in many quarters. Some say his death marks the end of a Kennedy-inspired generation—and an America—that believed it could be a virtuous force in the world. I fervently disagree. All of us have the chance to follow his example.