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.”
More recently, Mr. Holbrooke also has been blamed by some for not anticipating and blunting an uproar in Pakistan over a $7.5 billion U.S. aid package that included language some in Pakistan said infringed on their country’s sovereignty.
Mr. Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Pakistan to apply balm to that wound in between visits to Kabul.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Tuesday omitted Mr. Holbrooke’s name while giving credit for a “process toward legitimacy” in Afghanistan, praising Mr. Eikenberry, Mr. Kerry and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who called Mr. Karzai on Monday to push him toward a runoff.
P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said Mr. Holbrooke has been “at the heart of the execution of the policy that the president enunciated in March.”
However, the current review is intended to revise the March strategy.
Holbrooke staffers have worked 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for the past three weeks, trying to satisfy requests for information from the White House, a source close to the process said.
But Mr. Holbrooke, who is known for his love of the press, has been noticeably absent from the public eye. Ms. Bommer said her boss has not been instructed to refrain from talking to reporters, but did not indicate when he would begin again.
Mr. Clemons said Mr. Holbrooke is being made a fall guy for an “absence of presidential vision and clarity.”
“Holbrooke was loyal to the vision that Obama laid out last March, which proved to be an ineffective, incomplete and semidisconnected,” Mr. Clemons said. “Some people are trying to pin on Richard the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the relationship with Karzai, but all of that was deteriorating before.”
• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.