- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2009

President Obama called Richard Holbrooke “one of the most talented diplomats of his generation” when he named the globe-trotting foreign policy expert to be special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But 10 months later, Mr. Holbrooke was anchored in Washington and far from the front lines of diplomacy that led to Tuesday’s Afghan election deal.

The Obama administration used other intermediaries to apply the pressure that got Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff after fraud-tainted elections.

And when Mr. Obama praised his diplomatic team for its success, Mr. Holbrooke’s name was pointedly missing. There was high praise for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and “great congratulations” to Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who met with Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Holbrooke’s absence on the world stage in recent weeks has raised questions about his role going forward.

His staff offers a simple answer: The famed 68-year-old diplomat who helped broker the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995 has been in Washington helping to preside over the president’s monthlong Afghanistan strategy review.

He has provided the White House with much of the information reviewed at a series of war council meetings, according to those involved.

“His job is [in Washington] right now,” said Ashley Bommer, Mr. Holbrooke’s spokeswoman at the State Department.

Observers say Mr. Holbrooke’s rocky relationship with Mr. Karzai may be one reason he has receded into the diplomatic background.

“Karzai doesn’t trust or like Holbrooke… . There is not much of a relationship there,” said Steve Clemons, executive vice president at the New America Foundation who runs a popular foreign policy blog, the Washington Note, and is a fan of Mr. Holbrooke’s.

Tensions between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Holbrooke boiled over on Aug. 21 when the U.S. special representative raised questions about corruption in the elections, prompting what press reports called a shouting match between the two.

A top adviser to Mr. Holbrooke said the diplomat is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with Mr. Karzai, noting friction between Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the Afghan leader.

“I don’t think anybody’s relations with Karzai are good. Maybe some people approach him with a softer touch,” said the adviser, who asked not to be named in order to talk more freely about relations with foreign leaders.

The adviser noted that because of Mr. Holbrooke’s constant involvement with the Afghan government and frequent travels there earlier this year — he has made five trips since January and will make a sixth next week — he has delivered “the most amount of tough messages” to Mr. Karzai.

Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said it was “rather intelligent” not to send Mr. Holbrooke to sort out the post-election stress in Afghanistan.

The situation “needs careful handling for a long period of time,” he said. “That’s what an ambassador on the ground should do, not someone there on a short trip.”

Story Continues →