Holbrooke Has No Time to Waste

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is a man in a hurry, working in a land that can seem to defy time. His mission, as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is to achieve some measure of success in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and to prevent a nuclear-armed country from collapsing. He feels that he's under pressure to achieve something positive by next summer. If he can't, he says, political support in the United States will slip away. The question is whether Holbrooke's relentlessness—his sheer force of -personality—will make a real difference in countries that can seem immune to progress.

"Impatience will not solve this problem," says journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has written three respected books on the region. "And Holbrooke is an impatient guy." At least one Pakistani official has felt that firsthand. "He'll call you up, and after two minutes he'll say, 'I've got to go, I've got to go,' " recalls the official, who did not want to be named discussing personal interactions. "He's always got nine other things he's working on at the same time, texting people in the middle of a conversation." One of Holbrooke's close advisers, speaking in confidence about his boss, doesn't disagree: "Yes, he does kick Pakistan's ass, and they don't like it." Holbrooke's particular head-knocking skills may not be perfectly cast for this job, the hardest of his life. On the other hand, who else has the right mixture of grandiosity and smarts to even try?

Holbrooke doesn't look anything like an ornately costumed diplomat as he pads, barefoot, around his government jet, wearing yellow pj's, and eating a banana. Still, in some ways, he is a throwback to the old days of the ambassador plenipotentiary—the type of envoy whose word was imperial writ in far-flung places. True, Holbrooke is encumbered by a ubiquitous, buzzing cell phone and required to work with about eight different government agencies (State, Defense, Treasury, CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and USAID). But he has a way of making everyone work for him. Last week The New York Times reported that the Defense Department had a plan to reform Afghanistan's prisons. The idea (as Holbrooke is not shy about admitting) came from him. Holbrooke had been appalled to discover that jihadists were allowed to keep their cell phones in the local jails. Upon taking his assignment last winter, Holbrooke decided that eradicating poppy crops in Afghanistan to stop the opium trade was futile and only hurt poor farmers. It was only a matter of time before USAID, intelligence, and the military changed their strategy to target only big-time opium dealers.

Holbrooke has been studying great envoys "all my life," he says. In high school, he wrote a paper on Lord Kitchener, the much-beribboned proconsul sent to Sudan by Victorian Britain. "He was a pompous windbag," jokes Holbrooke. At 21, fresh out of Brown, Holbrooke joined the Foreign Service. This was 1962, during the "twilight struggle" of the Cold War, when American hubris was peaking. As a young State Department officer in the Mekong Delta, Holbrooke encountered the CIA's Col. Edward Lansdale—the model for Colonel Hillandale in the novel The Ugly American. He says today we would describe Lansdale as "sort of a successful con man."

Holbrooke learned from watching failure. He notes that one of his heroes and role models, Ambassador Averell Harriman, whom Holbrooke admiringly describes as "tenacious," failed to get a peace treaty with the North Vietnamese. He dislikes Vietnam analogies to Afghanistan but keeps coming back to them in conversation. Choosing his words carefully, he says, "I don't feel burned by Vietnam. I feel informed by it."

The clearest lesson Holbrooke took from Vietnam is that military success is useless without winning the hearts and minds of the population. He is obsessed with the problem of civilian casualties in Afghanistan—it is "the big issue," he says, "which could cost us the war." Of the hour and a half he recently spent with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new ground commander, most of the time was consumed by Holbrooke hammering away at "civ cas," as Holbrooke calls them, using the military acronym. (An Air Force general who declined to be identified says that McChrystal was sensitive to the issue before he talked to Holbrooke.)

Holbrooke still has a bit of New Frontier swagger, and he loves the aura of power and glamour. The late columnist Joseph Alsop, an arch-hawk on Vietnam, once described Holbrooke as one of the "Young Lords of the Delta." Holbrooke's friend and fellow Young Lord, Frank Wisner Jr., introduced Holbrooke to the fancy dinner parties of his mother, Polly. A middle-class suburban kid from Scarsdale, N.Y., Holbrooke still sounds like a boy with his nose pressed against the window when he describes his first dinner party at the Wisners'. "I sat next to Teddy Roosevelt's daughter!" he exclaims. Years later, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Holbrooke and his wife began running elegant salons for movers and shakers, showbiz types, and the occasional journalist. Generally speaking off the record, Holbrooke is unusually open with journalists, whom he alternately scolds and shamelessly flatters.

Officials in Pakistan were at first wary of Holbrooke, reports NEWSWEEK's correspondent in Islamabad, Ron Moreau. The new special representative was an admitted neophyte in the region, and his reputation for heavy arm-twisting preceded him. But the Pakistani officials interviewed by Moreau give him high marks for persuading Congress to provide billions in aid, and they say he has been deft at engaging Nawaz Sharif, the popular opposition leader. The Bush administration had treated Sharif as a dangerous Islamist and did not deal with him. As we flew into Islamabad last week, Holbrooke called Sharif by phone to schmooze—but then he was careful to make sure that President Asif Ali Zardari knew that he had placed the call. "I don't go behind Zardari's back," he says.

In March, a million people had filled the streets in Pakistan, as Sharif and Zardari squared off in a power struggle. For a tense moment, it seemed likely that the military would take over the government. But Holbrooke, furiously working the phones, mobilized President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen to lean on the Pakistani leadership to step back from the brink.

Since then, an uneasy truce has prevailed. When we arrived in Islamabad, the streets had been cleared so Holbrooke's armored convoy could career between government offices. Meeting with Pakistan's hostile, conspiracy-minded press, he was firm without getting sucked into debate (he may have learned a lesson from an earlier trip, when he made headlines by chastising a Pakistani news network for -anti--American reports). At another gathering with a group of Pakistanis who had been driven from their homes by the Taliban, he was polite, patient, even gentle with a 12-year-old girl whose school had been destroyed.

That evening, on the ride to have dinner with Zardari, I asked Holbrooke if he was patient enough for the job. "It isn't me that's impatient," he replied. "It's Congress. They want results." At the president's house, Holbrooke, who is 6 feet 2, gave the dapper, coiffed Zardari a big bearhug. "Every time I see you, things are a little better," said Holbrooke. Zar-dari beamed. "It's the karma. You send good stars to us," he said. I asked Zardari if he agreed that things were better, and he launched into a speech that Pakistan needed a $50 billion Marshall Plan. Holbrooke interjected that he agreed, but didn't think the United States should have to pay for it.

When Holbrooke was negotiating with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to end the Balkan war in the mid-'90s, he earned his nickname, "the Bulldozer," by threatening to bomb Serbia if Milosevic did not come to the bargaining table. Now he's pushing the Pakistanis to expand military pressure on the Taliban. But Holbrooke's bluster is largely gone. "You have to suit your method to the moment, and your style to the situation," he says. Holbrooke "feels the pressure" to succeed in "AfPak," as he calls the region. But he doesn't seem all that burdened. His staffers say they've heard the stories of his bullying but that he never tries that with them. "He's the easiest man I've ever worked with," says his chief of staff, Rosemarie Pauli, who has been with Holbrooke off and on for more than 15 years. (She laughs as she says this.)

"This is my last job in government," says Holbrooke, who is 68. Maybe, but Holbrooke, who doesn't hide his disappointment that he was never appointed secretary of state, doesn't seem like the retiring type. In David Halberstam's Vietnam chronicle, an anonymous government official is quoted as saying that Averell Harriman is "the only ambitious seventy-seven-year-old I've ever met." Holbrooke told me he was the anonymous source. In about 10 years, that's probably what they'll be saying about him.