The death on December 13 of U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, blew a gaping hole in the U.S. team heading up the civilian mission of the White House's strategy.
On December 10, Holbrooke was meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when he fell ill and was rushed to hospital. Three days later, he was gone -- the victim of a ruptured aorta.
The drama unfolded at the start of the week in which the White House was set to unveil its long-awaited strategy review of the war in Afghanistan.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley announced the day after Holbrooke's death, on December 14, that one of his top deputies, Frank Ruggiero would step in as acting special envoy.
Crowley said Ruggiero would be assisted by two deputies who are also veterans of Holbrooke's team, Dan Feldman and Vikram Singh.
The day the White House strategy review was unveiled, December 16, Clinton praised the team Holbrooke had assembled to help him accomplish what he told a Congressional committee this summer was "the most difficult job" he had held in his 30-plus-year diplomatic career.
"Now obviously this has been a very difficult week for all of us. And to these men and women, who spend their days and often their sleepless nights, working to make this crucial mission a success, Richard Holbrooke was a friend, a mentor and a boss," Clinton said. "He was a leader who always pushed each and every one of them to reach farther, see better, and think deeper. He took enormous pride in his team and with good reason."
Clinton said she had "complete confidence" in the new, Holbrooke-less Af-Pak team, adding that over "these last difficult days, they have stayed focused on the job at hand."
A Life Of Service
Ruggiero, a career civil servant, was chosen by Holbrooke in the summer of 2009 to be one of his top deputies.
At the time, he was living in Kabul and was the top U.S. civilian servant in southern Afghanistan. His posting there was part of the State Department's "civilian uplift," and his achievements included establishing and coordinating teams of civilians in Helmand and Kandahar provinces -- called District Support Teams -- who worked with NATO military battalions. The goal was to assist Afghan officials in getting services to local citizens as a way of reducing their dependence on the shadow governments established in many areas by the Taliban.
Ruggiero has also worked at the Department of Commerce, in addition to the State Department, where he was appointed in January 2009 to be acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs.
The consensus on his performance is that he is a highly competent and efficient manager; in 2008, the publication "Defense News" praised him for "prov[ing] instrumental in speeding reforms to the U.S. military export system," the process by which U.S. allies and foreign industry receive permission from the government to acquire U.S. systems and technology.
At the State Department on December 16, Ruggiero spoke fondly of Holbrooke, saying he and the whole team "were deeply saddened" by the statesman's death, and stressed that he was focused on "continuing his mission."
Ruggiero added that the strategy review shows that the administration "has made progress over the last 12 months in implementing and achieving our core objectives in both Afghanistan and Pakistan."
In an interview with the U.S. radio station NPR on December 17, Ruggiero admitted that Taliban and Al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan are still a problem for U.S. and NATO forces doing battle in Afghanistan, but he also praised Islamabad for taking "significant actions" over the past 18 months.
He also noted that Pakistani forces have engaged militants in six of the seven tribal areas where terrorists are known to be operating, and suffered some 30,000 casualties in the process.
Ruggiero earned a masters degree in Middle Eastern affairs from Washington, D.C.'s American University and is pursuing a Ph.D. in U.S. foreign policy in Asia from the University of Virginia.