Richard Holbrooke's legacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan


US diplomat Richard Holbrooke was engaged with sorting out Afghanistan's problems when he died. His robust style did not always endear him to politicians in Afghanistan or Pakistan, argue BBC correspondents in the region.

Paul Wood, Kabul

Behind the requisite tributes to Richard Holbrooke from Afghan leaders lay a very troubled relationship.

There were some spectacular rows behind the scenes. In the aftermath of the presidential elections, for example, Mr Holbrooke stormed out of a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The US ambassador in Kabul had to calm things down and arrange a second meeting.

Image caption, Richard Holbrooke's style was not always to the liking of Afghan politicians

Partly, this arose from Mr Holbrooke's famously forceful personality - which Afghans found abrasive. "His tragedy was his personal style," said one Western diplomat who had seen him in many meetings.

But he was also delivering a message which Afghan politicians found unwelcome, raising difficult issues such as corruption in the government. In fact, he thought corruption was one of the major threats to the success of the US mission.

He "got" Afghanistan, in the words of one diplomat, having travelled there many times as a private citizen. Above all, he thought that a purely military victory was not possible.

There had to be a political settlement, he thought, and that meant some kind of negotiations with the Taliban.

This was based on his view that the Taliban could be detached from al-Qaeda, and if the Taliban returned to Afghanistan as part of a peace deal, al-Qaeda, the authors of 9/11, might not necessarily return with them.

He was never truly close to US President Barack Obama and his inner circle, but the facts on the ground in Afghanistan increasingly seem to support his argument that a political settlement is the only way to conclude this war.

Therefore, the arguments within the US administration, too, seem to be moving his way.

If there is eventually a political settlement with the Taliban, that will be Richard Holbrooke's monument in this part of the world.

Orla Guerin, Islamabad

Pakistan's political leadership has joined in the chorus of tributes to Richard Holbrooke, though his bruising brand of diplomacy has not always been appreciated.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari described him as a key player in international diplomacy, who was both a friend of the nation and a personal friend.

Image caption, Shah Mahmood Qureshi (right) paid tribute to Mr Holbrooke

"His sudden passing away has left a huge vacuum," said Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

"He will long be remembered for his untiring efforts towards peace and stability in our region."

There is concern that his death will affect attempts at reconciliation in Afghanistan, at least temporarily.

The blunt style that served Holbrooke and America so well in other countries ruffled feathers in Islamabad, especially in his early days as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr Holbrooke was not afraid to display public irritation, which is considered rudeness here. There was a sense that a more nuanced, and more subtle approach was needed.

"There was scepticism initially," says Simbal Khan, political analyst at Islamabad's Institute for Strategic Studies.

"There were doubts raised. He lacked a background in the region. There was a feeling that he was not right for the job."

Over time, however, he grew into the role, and appears to have won over some doubters - or perhaps worn them down.

"He may have been shouting at you, but he was always communicating," said one insider.

Another senior official said that, contrary to his reputation, Mr Holbrooke was easy to work with.

"He understood Pakistan's dilemmas, and he was very engaged emotionally," he said.

Mr Holbrooke mobilised assistance for Pakistanis displaced by the devastating floods this year, and by military action in the Swat Valley last year.

"He was a doer, and he will be very much missed," said a presidential source.

"Whatever was accomplished was accomplished because of his energy, commitment and unflagging determination."

Mr Holbrooke's passion was never in doubt, but some analysts say that, at best, he achieved mixed results in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.

"He curbed his brashness and he was able to build good relations with the government," said Simbal Khan.

"But he was unpopular with the security establishment. They felt they could bypass him and have a direct line to people like US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Holbrooke was never among President Obama's inner circle."

Another knowledgeable source says the legendary diplomat was saddled with an impossible task.

"The challenge for him in the special representative job was that there was no deal to be done, vis-a-vis the Afghans and the Pakistanis," he said.

"I think that was a difficult paradigm for him. He was first and foremost a negotiator."

But he was focused on the challenges in this region until his final breath, according to reports from the US.

As the ailing envoy was wheeled into surgery, he is reported to have turned to the surgeon at his side - a Pakistani - and said: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

More on this story