In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” One of America’s most tireless peacemakers, Richard Holbrooke, died yesterday after an aortic rupture and the surgery that initially appeared to have saved his life. At 69, Holbrooke had served his country for more than four decades in diplomacy, starting his career in Vietnam and eventually achieving the pinnacle of his success in the Dayton Accords that brought an end to the worst of the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. In the past year, Holbrooke had worked until he collapsed to maintain the alliance in Afghanistan while at the same time attempting to correct the problems seen in the NATO-supported government in Afghanistan.
In fact, Holbrooke was so integral to the Obama administration’s efforts in the war that the Washington Post reports today that his death may do permanent damage to it:
The death of Richard C. Holbrooke, who directed the civilian side of the war in Afghanistan, leaves a major void in what has always been the most difficult and vulnerable aspect of President Obama’s strategy.
Tactical military gains have given the administration optimism that Taliban momentum, if not yet reversed, has been stalled. The Afghan army, while far from capable of taking over from the U.S.-led military coalition, is growing in number and ability.
But progress in creating a viable and sustainable Afghan government and economy, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and the efforts of more than 1,000 U.S. officials on the ground, has been an uphill battle, and President Hamid Karzai has been an erratic partner.
Meanwhile, neighboring Pakistan’s stability and determination to rout al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents from border regions remain uncertain. Using the force of his outsize personality and longtime connections throughout the foreign relations community, Holbrooke fought hard in Washington to obtain increased economic assistance for Pakistan. His fights in Pakistan to ensure the money was used effectively were equally tough.
The Post’s Karen de Young calls Holbrooke “the glue that held the enterprise together,” noting that the increasing skepticism at home and abroad on the war required someone with Holbrooke’s talents to keep it focused. The military side of the war has improved since the US increased its force size and imposed its will on Taliban-held areas like Marja, but the effort to bolster the Karzai government has not had the same success. Without Holbrooke’s leadership, it could start to disintegrate.
The Afghans see it a little differently. While Hamid Karzai praised and eulogized Holbrooke after learning of his death, other officials were less enthusiastic and less concerned about the impact of his death, at least concerning Afghanistan. Karzai’s legal adviser told the press that Holbrooke was more engaged with Pakistan and India than Afghanistan. That, however, was a critical front in the war against the Taliban, and a relationship that has already been strained due to the Predator drone attacks that Islamabad secretly approves but create severe domestic strain for the elected government.
Few men in history are really indispensable. It’s entirely possible that a fresh set of eyes and a new approach will improve the situation in the Af-Pak theater, and hopefully that will be the case. That set of eyes needs to be found as soon as possible, though, because a vacuum will create failure on its own. In the meantime, our prayers go out to Richard Holbrooke’s family and friends, and regardless of whether we saw eye to eye on policy, Americans will pay our respects for a man who dedicated his life to service to the US.