Reading through some of the many thousands of words written about Richard Holbrooke, for me two stories stood out in their ability to capture what will be lost with his death:
“While beleaguered members of Mr. Holbrooke’s traveling party sought sleep on transcontinental flights, he usually would stay up late reading. On one trip to Pakistan, he padded to the forward of the cabin in his stocking feet to point out to a reporter a passage in Margaret Bourke-White’s memoirs of the time of India-Pakistan partition and independence. Bourke-White quoted Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling her that Pakistan would have no problems with the Americans, because ‘they will always need us more than we need them.’ Mr. Holbrooke laughed, saying, ‘Nothing ever changes.’”
Talking about Washington’s approach to Pakistan, Holbrooke said, “The relationship with Pakistan is so fraught with a history of disappointment on both sides… We can’t align our interests exactly, because they live in a different space, and their history is defined by their relationship with India. . . . The one thing I believe we can do with Pakistan is to try to reach a strategically symmetrical view on the danger posed by Al Qaeda and its allies. That’s the proximate strategic goal.”
Put together, those comments cover a huge sweep of history and geography which explain why the war in Afghanistan is proving to be so intractable. While the military, and much of the media, focus on Afghanistan – since that is where western troops are deployed - Pakistan is fighting its own battle with India born out of the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
Holbrooke was one of the few U.S. officials to have the intellectual range to fully grasp how far the problems of the Afghan war stretched back into history and out into the wider region, from Kabul to Kashmir, from Islamabad to Delhi, from 2010 to 1947. And though he was not allowed to include Kashmir in his mandate because of Indian objections, he nonetheless travelled frequently to India to seek ways of easing tensions with Pakistan. Without such an easing in tensions, Pakistan was never going to turn fully against the Afghan Taliban, believing it might need them to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan.
It is not at all clear whether the United States can find someone to replace him with the kind of intellectual range, experience and determination to untangle that knot. According to Julian Borger at The Guardian there is already some talk that the task could instead be handed over to a new U.N. peace envoy, whose job it would be to sound out the Taliban and Afghanistan’s neighbours on a political settlement. (At first glance, that would seem to be a non-starter if you wanted to keep India in the loop. Though India tolerates behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the United States and Britain in its relations with Pakistan, it would be expected to reject any U.N. interference which threatened to internationalise the Kashmir dispute.)
As Holbrooke’s comments on finding “a strategically symmetric view” with Pakistan on al Qaeda suggested, he also appeared to be focusing on the art of the possible. This was neither the ”grand bargain” floated during President Barack Obama’s election campaign of seeking peace in Afghanistan by resolving the Kashmir dispute; not the other extreme of ramping up military operations into Pakistan itself. He may even have been making progress — Pakistan has been signalling of late a willingness to push for a settlement in Afghanistan which would force al Qaeda out of the region.
For the moment, the question of who replaces him may be academic. Despite a rising number of people calling for a political settlement of the Afghan war (likely to require multi-layered talks, from negotiations with Afghan insurgents to broader regional dialogue) for the time being the focus of U.S. strategy is still very much on the military campaign in Afghanistan. Holbrooke had been somewhat sidelined in recent months, in part because of that military focus. But as and when efforts to reach a political settlement began to take shape, he would have come into his own. No one is talking of utopian peace deals here, but of least bad options. Holbrooke’s death probably makes the chances of eventually reaching that political settlement less likely.