Holbrooke in the Trenches

The Taliban are playing Richard Holbrooke's death as an omen. After his "life of toil and fatigue," said a communiqué from the guerrillas, the American president's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan succumbed to heart problems "when his previous fame and credibility came under question after the unremitting failures of the mission."

Waxing mystical, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi went on to list the Russian presidents who had dropped dead one after another when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. Looking back over the last year he recalled Gen. Stanley McChrystal's logorrheic flameout and Gen. David Petraeus's fainting spell before a Senate committee. Faced with a losing war and no fresh ideas, despite the current "policy review," some American officials "lighten their burden by simply going to the other world," said Ahmadi, while others, still in the land of the living, "choose to avoid shouldering the mission."

But for all the smugness, even the Taliban know that Richard Holbrooke was not one to avoid a mission. Holbrooke believed that one man or woman—one diplomat—could still make a real difference in the game of nations, and in his case he was right. He never won the Nobel Prize, although he certainly should have gotten it after the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian genocide in 1995, and he never became the U.S. secretary of state, although he was a runner-up at least twice.

When Holbrooke took up his assignment as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan early last year, trying to lay the foundations for long-term stability at the epicenter of the Obama administration's tremulous policy, he knew as well as anyone that his mission was close to impossible.

There would be no repetition of his breakthrough in the Balkans. This was a different battlefield. These were different cultures. The United States and NATO were implicated more deeply, directly, and intractably in Afghanistan than they had ever been in Bosnia. In the 1990s, Washington still had the extraordinary power and prestige that came with victory in the Cold War, and Holbrooke knew he was speaking for a powerhouse. Fifteen years later, with America enfeebled by the Iraq and Afghan wars, its economy anemic, its people deeply divided, Holbrooke didn't have Uncle Sam watching his back any more. But Holbrooke still took the job.

The AfPak challenge was to bring about cooperation and close coordination between two governments that plainly detested each other. The regime in Kabul sees Pakistan as an ally of the Taliban, who enjoy safe havens and logistical and training bases in Pakistani territory. To the Pakistanis, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's feckless, corrupt administration increasingly looks like a satellite of India, the archenemy of Islamabad.

"Holbrooke was listening carefully and had enthusiasm, and we always found him very keen on talking with everyone in Pakistan," says Ashraf Ali, director of the FATA Research Center in Islamabad. A former member of the Afghan cabinet, speaking privately, said he always found Holbrooke "very polite and experienced, but he had such soft spots for Pakistan that some time we thought he was the envoy of Pakistan."

In fact, Holbrooke never gave up trying to convince Islamabad's powerful Chief Of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani that aiding and abetting Taliban factions like the lethal Haqqani network and Mullah Omar's ruling Quetta shura was an existential threat to Pakistan itself and not in the country's long-term interest.

Still, Holbrooke kept at it. In the nearly score of trips he took to Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past two years, he never seemed to rest from the moment his jet touched down. He bounced from meetings to breakfasts to more meetings to lunches and dinners at the foreign ministry and presidential palace and Kayani's GHQ. He made side trips to see the other political players, such as opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who had been largely ignored by the Bush administration. Holbrooke delivered the same blunt message to everyone in Pakistan: that the U.S. was a steadfast friend and that these so-called Taliban "allies" would become the Islamabad government's worst enemies.

As if Holbrooke were not busy enough, he also took time to seek out the relatively hostile Pakistani media, cajoling them to be more objective, less anti-American, and to acknowledge the positive side of the more than $12 billion in aid that the U.S. has poured into the country since the 9/11 attacks. His tough talk angered many but also earned him respect. He rarely pulled his punches. He was not there to win friends, but he was quick to accent the positive. When massive floods devastated more than one third of Pakistan this past summer, Holbrooke quickly flew halfway around the world to help coordinate and publicize the large and timely American airlift of life-saving humanitarian supplies.

In Afghanistan, Holbrooke's dossier was just as difficult. He had to deal with the increasingly erratic behavior of President Karzai and his largely unfulfilled promises to crack down on official corruption, including the narcotics trade. Holbrooke had the unpleasant task of telling the Afghans that while Pakistan and the continuing infiltration of Taliban fighters from Pakistani territory was indeed a threat, Karzai's people also had to get their own house in order if they were going to win the skeptical and war-weary Afghan population over to the government's side. At times Holbrooke also served as a liaison between the U.S. and NATO high command and Karzai, trying to assure the Afghans that foreign forces were doing all they could to limit civilian casualties while continuing to aggressively pursue the war against the Taliban.

While Afghans and Pakistanis didn't appreciate his blunt, forceful messages, they did respect the man for his directness and his honesty. Holbrooke never tried to mislead anyone by delivering one message in one country and a conflicting line in another. He was tough but consistent and fair. There was no sleight of hand.

Frank Ruggiero, Holbrooke's deputy and his successor for the moment, will bring to the job a solid background in Afghanistan. He served on the ground there for a year before jointing Holbrooke's team. But it's hard to imagine that any replacement could possibly bring Holbrooke's experience, his energy, his dogged determination and his extreme confidence to the job. It's doubtful any diplomat could have done better. We just have to hope that none do worse.

Christopher Dickey is also the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force - The NYPD, chosen by the New York Times as a notable book of 2009.