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What Does Holbrooke's Past As Bosnia's 'Bulldozer' Say About Future In South Asia?

Holbrooke in Sarajevo in 1996, trying to revitalize the faltering peace process
Holbrooke in Sarajevo in 1996, trying to revitalize the faltering peace process
For a diplomat, Richard Holbrooke is often described in decidedly undiplomatic terms. Impatient. Pushy. Egotistical. A "bulldozer."

Now Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke is best known as the man who brokered the Dayton Accords that brought peace to Bosnia in 1995.

For hundreds of thousands of people desperately seeking an end to a brutal, 3 1/2-year war, the hard-nosed negotiator seemed a perfect fit.

Senad Pecanin, editor of the independent Sarajevo weekly "Dani," spent the autumn of 1995 closely watching the process of the Dayton negotiations from his home in the besieged city.

After the war's end, he conducted several extensive interviews with Holbrooke. Pecanin says he and many Bosnians were favorably impressed by the American envoy's tough-guy tactics.

"When he started to deal with the Bosnian war, he immediately recognized that traditional diplomatic negotiations would not be successful in dealing with Balkan leaders," Pecanin said.

"Holbrooke realized that only a combination of stick and carrot could give good results -- with the accent on the stick," he continued. "Balkan leaders even created a new word, holbrukovanje -- translated, it's something like 'holbrookization' -- which means negotiations held under permanent threat of sanctions and punishment."

Whether by NATO bombs or territorial concessions, Holbrooke succeeded where others had failed in pushing warring leaders like Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Croatian leader Franjo Tudman, and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic to the negotiating table.

The signing of the Dayton Accords in December 1995 catapulted Holbrooke, a lifetime diplomat, from a life behind the scenes to a career as one of the world's best-known troubleshooters.

Although he failed in his bid to serve as secretary of state under Bill Clinton -- who ultimately gave the post to Madeleine Albright -- he went on to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and as a top foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton during her run for the presidency in 2008. Following his success in Bosnia, he was seen as a desired adviser on religious and ethnic conflicts ranging from Kosovo to Iraq.

A Complex Legacy

Now, Holbrooke is facing what may prove to be the greatest challenge of his career -- pushing Pakistan and Afghanistan to cooperate in fighting Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. U.S. President Barack Obama, naming Holbrooke his special envoy to the region, called him "one of the most talented diplomats of his generation."

"It's thanks to this totally inefficient framework that [Bosnia] is still not able to be self-sufficient." -- Senad Pecanin
Will the combative style he honed in Bosnia work in South Asia?

James Lyon, a Balkans expert with the Democratization Policy Council, was living in Serbia at the time of the Dayton signing. He describes Holbrooke as a man who can "get things done" at times when more elegant diplomatic means have failed.

"The softly-softly diplomatic approach has very rarely succeeded in getting any kind of traction here," Lyon said. "You have to come in and really be robust. So, would any other type of approach have worked in bringing about a peace agreement? The answer, in all probability, is no. I think Dick Holbrooke was absolutely ideal for bringing the war to an end in Bosnia."

But brokering the peace is only part of Holbrooke's legacy in Bosnia. Nearly 14 years later, the guns remain silent. But the country's administrative framework, brokered under Dayton, is complex, fragile, and weakening at the seams.

The Serb-majority entity Republika Srpska -- which, together with the Muslim- and Croat-majority Bosnia-Herzegovina federation, makes up Bosnia proper -- was created as a concession to Serb interests in the Dayton talks. But it is now threatening to secede from Bosnia, led by fiery calls from its nationalist prime minister, Milorad Dodik.

Haris Silajdzic, the Bosniak member of the country's tripartite presidency, has thrown down a gauntlet of his own, calling on the United Nations to reverse its recognition of Republika Srpska, which he described as a "genocidal creation."

And even without the fighting words, another obstacle exists: a Byzantine administrative maze of overlapping government structures created under Dayton to accommodate each of Bosnia's national and regional groups.

More than a functioning, unified country, Bosnia is a vast patchwork of entities, cantons, municipalities, and "official" cities doubling as capitals. Or, as "Dani" editor Pecanin puts it, "14 constitutions, 14 governments, more than 200 ministries -- altogether, a state which is not able to function."

"Like most Bosnians, I really appreciate [Holbrooke's] engagement to stop the war in Bosnia. That in itself is enormous," Pecanin said. "But at the same time, I'm definitely not happy with his record on preparing and imposing Dayton's constitutional order in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

"It's thanks to this totally inefficient framework that my country is still not able to be self-sufficient, and still depends on the very strong political and military presence of the international community," Pecanin said.

Holbrooke himself has acknowledged the mounting unrest in Bosnia. In a recent article coauthored with Paddy Ashdown, the international community's former high representative to the country, Holbrooke referred to Bosnia as a "powder keg."

Together, the authors argued that the United States and European Union must do more to reinvigorate their focus on the region, by stepping up both an administrative presence as well as a military one.

Next Challenge: South Asia

Any future engagement in Bosnia will not involve Holbrooke, of course. As the diplomat prepares to take on the challenge of delivering a negotiated security to Afghanistan and Pakistan amid a mounting terrorist insurgency, he has warned there is no Dayton-style "magic formula" for his new assignment.

Still, experts say the lessons learned by Holbrooke in the Balkans may prove useful as he heads to South Asia.

Gordon Bardos, the assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's school of international and public affairs in New York, says Holbrooke is uniquely suited to deal with the intricate range of ethnic and religious issues that awaits him in his new post.

"His experience in Bosnia and in the Balkans definitely sensitized him to all the complexities of dealing with rival ethnic groups, so his experience in trying to negotiate a deal between Bosniaks and Croats and Serbs should definitely prepare him for trying to deal with Pashtuns and Tajiks and everyone else that he's going to have to deal with in Afghanistan," Bardos said.

A big question, as Holbrooke heads this week to Pakistan and Afghanistan, is how well he will click with other U.S. officials with an eye on the region -- namely Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice-President Joe Biden, and General David Petraeus, who is leading America's military operations in Afghanistan.

In Bosnia, Holbrooke was seen as a man who excelled only once he was put in charge. In South Asia, where there will be many hands at work, there will be fewer opportunities for the "bulldozer" to go it alone.

Still, the appointment is seen as a clear message that Washington is ready to do business -- and may not play nice.

Just as Holbrooke was sent in to force the peace in Bosnia, Lyon says his new posting should send a signal to the region -- and in particular, U.S. ally Pakistan -- that it's time to get tough on militants.

"Dick Holbrooke's the bad cop. The other diplomats play good cop," Lyon said. "But when Dick comes in, it means things have gotten pretty far off the rails."

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