KABUL – The American envoy’s armed convoy rumbled through Kabul’s dusty streets, stopping at one polling place, then another as Afghans voted in their first contested presidential election.
In the August heat, Richard Holbrooke watched the voting with a mixture of concern and satisfaction.
Widespread violence had been averted, but the integrity of the election, so vital to American plans, had yet to be proven.
Mingling with locals and sampling pastry sold by some children on a corner, Holbrooke said the process appeared “peaceful and orderly.”
“The test comes when people count the ballots,” he mused as he squinted at one of the complicated punch cards.
The next day, Holbrooke would learn how true his words were. At a crisis meeting of U.S. officials monitoring the election, he was told that President Hamid Karzai’s staff had begun to claim victory, and that Karzai’s opponents were charging fraud.
The veteran U.S. diplomat remained calm, but the moment represented the dawning of what soon would become a devastating realization: Afghanistan’s election had been wracked by corruption. The credibility of the vote was undermined and, along with it, many of the Obama administration’s hopes for Afghanistan.
Now, with Karzai likely to win re-election but international confidence shattered, and with extremist violence steadily rising, President Barack Obama is reconsidering whether the U.S. strategy is worth salvaging. And for Holbrooke, the most celebrated diplomat in the U.S. government, the disastrous election was among setbacks with far-reaching ramifications.
As Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke has struggled for nine months with the toughest job of his career – stabilizing two fragile states beset by Islamic insurgency.
In the closed meetings of the administration, Holbrooke had been a leading advocate for a “go big” policy in Afghanistan. He pushed for an ambitious U.S. military presence, an intensive effort to train Afghan troops, and a drive to root out Afghan government corruption and to spur economic development.
The aim of the plan was to convince Afghans to turn their backs on insurgents and embrace their own government. But it depended on a fair election.
Holbrooke argued for years in a monthly column in The Washington Post that stabilizing Afghanistan was a big job that deserved generous U.S. resources. One reason he wants to spend big: U.S. control.
Beyond helping Afghans, Holbrooke values the influence U.S. aid provides, said one American who has worked closely with Holbrooke in Kabul.
“He’s a leverage man,” said the American. “His whole being is dedicated to finding leverage over specific actors and using it to get what he wants.”
Holbrooke, 68, began his career in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War and has held senior posts under every Democratic president since Jimmy Carter. He helped end the war in Bosnia, where his hard-charging diplomacy earned him such nicknames as the “Raging Bull.” He was recruited for the job in the Obama administration by his longtime ally, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he advised in the 2008 presidential primary campaign.
He set out, at a frantic pace, to turn the Bush administration’s approach to the region inside out. Where Bush praised and encouraged Karzai, Holbrooke browbeat him, complaining about the government’s corruption and ineffectiveness.
Similarly, while the Bush team limited its contacts in Pakistan, Holbrooke began reaching out to all corners of its labyrinthine political landscape, including Islamists with suspected extremist ties.
Holbrooke moved to impose greater control over the splintered U.S. government effort in Afghanistan, and to crank open aid spigots to both countries.
A chief asset is his reputation, towering even against Washington’s power peaks, as a diplomat who gets what he wants from foreign leaders and bureaucratic rivals through argument, flattery, threats and persistence.
Holbrooke, a tall, barrel-chested man, has endured the 18-hour flight to the region six times so far this year on an Air National Guard jet, which he roams, on long flights, in beige pajamas.
In his infrequent spare moments on the plane he watches movies and seems to prefer films produced for teens. “Dumb and Dumber” is his all-time favorite, he has said.
In Kabul, stories of Holbrooke’s clashes with Karzai are legendary, including one in which the Afghan president threw his lambskin hat at the American.
Karzai is convinced that Holbrooke wants to undermine him, and views him as “the devil,” said one American diplomat. (In fact, Karzai has been receiving much the same message from other U.S. officials; he also considers Vice President Joe Biden an enemy, officials say.)
However, experts debate whether the Obama administration has skillfully handled Karzai, who may remain in office for the next five years.
One former U.S. diplomat who has worked with Karzai contended that the American pressure has backfired, convincing the conspiracy-minded Karzai that the Americans were out to dump him, and that he needed to turn to his only other substantial source of political support: the warlords Washington despises.
“We’ve pushed him exactly where we didn’t want him,” said this diplomat, who declined to be quoted because he is no longer involved on the issue.
Another recent confrontation involved the United Nations office in Kabul, where Holbrooke earlier this year wanted to install a close associate, Peter W. Galbraith, as the No. 2 official.
Kai Eide, the senior U.N. representative in Kabul, fought Holbrooke on the issue, apparently fearing that Galbraith’s presence would give the Americans too much leverage over the U.N. effort.
Galbraith and Eide clashed bitterly last month, with the American charging that the U.N. was concealing evidence of election fraud. He was fired from his post last month.
Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, has acknowledged the collision with Holbrooke and explained that both he and the American have “short fuses.”
Since the election, Holbrooke has avoided judgments on the fraud charges. However, Galbraith said that up to 30 percent of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent. If true, it would wipe out Karzai’s victory margin, potentially forcing a runoff.
Separate international and Afghan election panels are working to determine whether the evidence of fraud warrants a runoff election.
Now, Holbrooke is taking part in a new round of administration meetings aimed at reviewing the U.S. Afghanistan strategy in the wake of continued violence, the botched election and plummeting U.S. public opinion.
Holbrooke has not taken a position in the new debate. But when the Obama team took its first cut at Afghanistan and Pakistan policy earlier this year, Holbrooke’s stance was the dominant one in interagency meetings.
The administration’s description of that policy avoided references to “nation building,” a term that reminds many Americans of failed past efforts to make other countries more like the United States. But the approach favored by Holbrooke amounted to nation building, with expansive programs to improve the economy, public welfare and Afghan government institutions.
Aside from the overall strategy, Holbrooke’s efforts are widely credited with revitalizing what had been a neglected U.S. effort in the country.
“They’ve done a good job of putting this process on steroids,” said Alexander Thier, of the U.S. Institute for Peace, a federally funded research organization created by Congress. “They’ve brought in a lot of very serious, very intense people who have their reputations staked on this effort, and have given it a lot more juice.”
Ultimately, however, the larger success of Holbrooke’s efforts will be judged on whether the strategy selected by the Obama administration succeeds where every previous approach has failed.
Holbrooke has insisted Afghanistan and Pakistan are his last diplomatic mission. Even given his age, many who know him have a hard time believing it.
Either way, Morton Abramowitz, a former senior State Department official who has known Holbrooke since 1969, says the job is the toughest foreign policy assignment faced by the administration, including Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
“This is infinitely harder than what he did in the Balkans,” Abramowitz said.