In the basement of the State Department a few weeks back, Richard Holbrooke whispered discreetly in the ear of Gen. David Petraeus, while a few chairs away Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the press about Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The moment reveals an unexpected phenomenon in the early days of the Obama administration: Holbrooke not being Holbrooke. As the president prepares to formally unveil his Afghanistan strategy Friday, Holbrooke’s influence, as Obama’s special envoy for the region, is undeniable — but exercised in a restrained style many familiar with his exploits in previous assignments would have thought impossible.
Other than a few news-free television interviews and tame speeches and the usual rumors (later denied) that Holbrooke has run roughshod over State Department bureaucrats, he has been practically invisible by his standards. And those standards include being renowned as one of the premier bureaucratic infighters of his generation, as a treasured source for scores of Beltway scribes and as a fearsome negotiator who goaded warring Balkan leaders into the 1995 Dayton accords largely through sheer force of personality.
Few expected the larger-than-life Holbrooke to adapt so smoothly to his status as an envoy appointed by the president and reporting to Clinton. But he has managed the difficult balancing act so far, not upstaging Clinton and at least for the moment not insisting on being the center of attention.
Part of the reason for Holbrooke’s restraint is that the Obama administration is still formulating its new strategy. His role in that review has been substantial but behind the scenes, officials involved say. Once it begins to unfold, Holbrooke’s role and visibility is likely to increase. But even then, Holbrooke’s penchant for sweeping diplomatic strokes may be curbed as Obama seeks to scale down U.S. goals in Afghanistan.
Holbrooke has become in effect the man in charge of the State Department’s South and Central Asia Bureau. On the day after Holbrooke was appointed, an official said, Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher, who runs the bureau, called his staff together and declared that all staffers involved in Afghanistan- and Pakistan-related issues should understand that Holbrooke could call on them whenever he wanted.
That hasn’t entirely smoothed over relations with longtime State Department hands, but several said that rumors of sharp disagreements between Holbrooke’s small operation and the bureau are overblown.
Holbrooke, officials say, pressed the need for a substantial increase in civilian aid directed at the tribal areas of Pakistan to start radio stations, development projects and other steps to counter the growing influence of the Taliban and militant groups — a position many in the bureau agree with.
Nor has Holbrooke clashed with the Pentagon. They would readily send more U.S. troops to Pakistan to step up training of its forces in counterinsurgency techniques but doubt that will be possible, given the fragile state of the Pakistani government.
“Everybody says what we need to do is send more troops. Holbrooke has said we need more civilian effort, and the Pentagon doesn’t mind hearing that at all,” an official said.
Holbrooke has knocked heads in private with Afghans and Pakistanis, including senior military and intelligence officials, whose relations had become especially strained in recent years. Simply getting them in the same room to exchange information about the threats that span the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was significant, officials say.
Publicly, Holbrooke has been careful not to appear to be bullying the fragile Pakistani government — or pressing it to accept a greater American presence that could destabilize it further.
"The heart of the problem for the West is in western Pakistan," Holbrooke said in a speech lastweekend in Brussels. "But there are not going to be U.S. or NATO troops on the ground in Pakistan. There is a red line for the government of Pakistan, and one which we must respect."
Privately, he had a typically blunt message to the Pakistanis, who have alternated between heavy-handed military operations and ineffective truces with militant groups: “He told them, you’re not going to win this thing by only whacking guys or cutting deals. You need to do long-term counterinsurgency,” according to an official familiar with the discussions.
Holbrooke also pushed for the so-called “Big Tent” meeting being convened by the United Nations on March 31 at The Hague to bring together all the countries and international organizations with a stake in Afghanistan. Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation at the meeting but Holbrooke will accompany her, officials have said.
Among those invited are Iran and India, countries that Holbrooke is convinced can be helpful in stabilizing Afghanistan. India has promised to show, and Iranian officials have spoken positively about the idea but not formally accepted.
The appointment of a high-level envoy like Holbrooke has prompted Britain and other countries to name their own special envoys for Afghanistan, a trend that U.S. officials hope will translate into greater help.
“Holbrooke is the master of exploiting the connection between the symbolic and the substantive,” said one official involved, noting that the conference will force other nations to take on bigger roles in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan. Simply by holding a meeting, the official said, “You force other countries to think through, ‘Do we really want to show up without a bottle of wine?’”
Whether all this activity swirling around Holbrooke eventually shows results depends on whether the security situation improves in both countries. Only then will reconstruction programs and efforts to encourage Afghan farmers to stop growing poppies for the drug trade pay off. Going back to Bosnia, Holbrooke has worked closely with the military and is already showing signs of doing so again, officials said.
The stew of problems besetting Afghanistan and Pakistan do not easily lend themselves to a Holbrookian mega-deal of the sort he pulled off in Bosnia, when he hammered out a complex peace deal among the Serbs, Muslims and Croats that solidified his reputation as an international troubleshooter — and notorious seeker of the limelight.
He is convinced that one of the answers to getting Pakistan to devote more attention to the militant threat it faces is to reduce tensions between Pakistan and India, officials say. If that could happen, Pakistan could move more of its troops into the tribal areas and border regions where much of the militant threat exists.
But Holbrooke has also not figured out yet whether he can be successful in reducing India-Pakistan tensions, the officials say. India has long resisted involving outside mediators and Holbrooke has no intention of getting involved in trying to force resolution of long-running disputes, like the Kashmir issue.
“The joke around the department is that ‘Holbrooke doesn’t do India until he does India,’” said one official.