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Holbrooke Death Unlikely To Change U.S. Policy On Afghanistan, Pakistan

Richard Holbrooke, U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, enters a tent to meet a displaced family from the Swat and Buner district in Mardan, Pakistan, in June.

Richard Holbrooke, U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, enters a tent to meet a displaced family from the Swat and Buner district in Mardan, Pakistan, in June.

Political leaders around the world have been hailing Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. diplomat who died in Washington on December 13 of complications from a torn aorta, as a great negotiator who helped end the Balkan wars of the 1990s by brokering the Dayton peace accords.

But analysts and experts say his influence on U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan had been waning in recent months and his death is not expected to alter Washington's course in those countries.

In paying tribute to his special envoy to those two countries, U.S. President Barack Obama described Holbrooke as "a true giant of American foreign policy."

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Quershi said Holbrooke's death has left a huge vacuum. In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Holbrooke a "veteran and seasoned diplomat" who had "served greatly the government and the people of the United States."

Experts on Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, say Holbrooke's death is unlikely to bring about any sudden changes in U.S. policy toward the region.

Tariq Fathmi, a former Pakistani career diplomat who currently works as a political analyst, says any vacuum created by Holbrooke's death would be more related to the way the Obama administration interacts with politicians and other diplomats from other countries than any drastic U.S. policy changes.

"In the American system, no single person exercises veto over policy. There are a large number of people from both the civil and the military side, as well as the political advisers in the White House, who are involved in this process. It is their collective wisdom that comes into play," Fathmi says. "But there is no doubt that [Holbrooke] was the key person who was not only advising the president and the secretary of state but also the implementer -- the enforcer -- of that particular policy. Therefore, undoubtedly, the political aspects of America's approach will certainly suffer a great deal because of his sad departure."

Waning Influence?

Jean MacKenzie, the Kabul bureau editor for the online news site GlobalPost, describes Holbrooke as a "lone voice" from the United States because of his calls for more outreach to the Taliban and diplomatic settlements to the Afghanistan war.

But in the end, MacKenzie says, Holbrooke's recommendations to the Obama administration were being overshadowed by the advice the president was getting from U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan.

"Holbrooke's passing will have a limited effect on the actual course of events in Afghanistan," MacKenzie says. "Unfortunately, it also deprives us of another voice and another view of what is possible in Afghanistan."

MacKenzie says the recent release of classified U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks confirms that Holbrooke's influence on events in Afghanistan and Pakistan was waning in the months before his death.

"It is very clear that Holbrooke for the past year and a half has had very limited influence because he was speaking against the policy that was being formed in Washington," MacKenzie says. "While Holbrooke has said that he was in favor of some form of talks with the Taliban [or] outreach to the Taliban -- and he very clearly stated that there was no possibility of a military solution to this war -- that fell pretty much on deaf ears when they were working out the strategy. We have yet to see what the strategy review is going to bring us. But we have already heard that we are to expect very few changes."

Starting Over

Nasrullah Stankzai, an independent Kabul-based political analyst, claims Holbrooke spent much of his time in the region trying to create the diplomatic mechanisms needed to resolve the conflict but had little to show for his efforts.

"Holbrooke was not able to bring a diplomatic mechanism into play for this whole saga in Afghanistan," Stankzai says. "He was always very optimistic and peace in Afghanistan, but he didn't have any mechanism to implement it. Because of his lack of experience in the region, sometimes his presence brought about more conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Ijaz Ahmad Khan, chairman of the Area Study Center on Foreign Relations at Peshawar University in Pakistan, says he does not expect Holbrooke's death to result in major changes in U.S. policy in the region. But Khan says Holbrooke's death could set back efforts to bring a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan because Holbrooke had just familiarized himself with the key players in the region when his life was cut short.

"No doubt, Holbrooke had a history of success from negotiations and he had developed his own style," Ahmad Khan says. "To understand this region, he traveled extensively and he met almost everybody. Because of that, he had one foot in Kabul and one in Islamabad and the next day he would be in Washington. He tried to understand the region and was just succeeding in that."

RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal correspondent Majeed Babar and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this story