By ousting his top general in Afghanistan, President Obama may have solved the biggest personnel problem in conducting the war. But he made it clear that there are others, and hinted that more heads could roll.
So when the president said he would tolerate debate but not division, some saw it as a message aimed straight at his special envoy for the region, Richard C. Holbrooke.
Eighteen months ago, expectations were that the fabled diplomat who began his career in Vietnam and helped end the Balkan wars would become the dominant civilian official in an expanding U.S. effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Holbrooke has clashed with foreign leaders and American colleagues.
When he was sidelined by the White House during months of crucial negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, rumors began swirling that he was on the way out.
Holbrooke has shown an ability to hold on.
“He’s a dead man walking, but he could be walking for some time,” said one person who has worked closely with Holbrooke.
After accepting the resignation of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal for disparaging remarks by him and subordinate military officers about civilian officials, including Holbrooke, in a Rolling Stone article, Obama directed his national security team to stop what aides described as excessive bickering.
A trio of leading senators urged Obama on Wednesday to overhaul what they called a “completely dysfunctional” civilian war leadership.
Along with Holbrooke, that leadership includes Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who was weakened last fall after disclosures that he had objected to Obama’s proposed approach to the war. Eikenberry since has endorsed the approach, but continues to face questions.
Holbrooke has been valuable on “a set of important tactical issues,” said Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with strong ties to the administration. “But when you measure it against what his role was in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, it’s a quite different, and more modest, role.”
In the months before McChrystal’s downfall, Holbrooke was given something of a new vote of confidence from Obama after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton intervened on his behalf, administration officials said.
Holbrooke, 69, retains influence over the work of U.S. civilian agencies in Afghanistan and may be given a key role in the next important stage of the Afghan war: negotiating a political reconciliation with the Taliban.
Holbrooke rejects the idea that his role has receded. In an e-mail message this month, he wryly noted that he was in Madrid at the time, overseeing “one of those high-level meetings that I hear I am not involved in.”
Even so, the Rolling Stone article renewed questions about Holbrooke’s standing within the national security apparatus. In the article, officers with the U.S. military command in Afghanistan openly scorn the special envoy, with one calling him a “wounded animal,” especially dangerous because of the constant threat of being fired.
One turning point for Holbrooke came after the August 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan, which was marred by widespread fraud.
Holbrooke delivered a stern message to Karzai about electoral fraud, and the Afghan leader “went ballistic,” said Peter Galbraith, who was then the deputy United Nations representative to Afghanistan, and is an old friend and colleague of Holbrooke.
Administration officials feared alienating Karzai, and prevented Holbrooke from going to Afghanistan for months afterward, Galbraith said.
Holbrooke worked to structure his job to give himself proximity to power: He reports to Obama through Clinton. But there are signs of distance between the two men.
In December, when Obama unveiled his revised approach to Afghanistan in a speech at West Point, Holbrooke was not there. And when Obama visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, in March, Holbrooke did not go along.
Holbrooke also has had difficulty with some Pakistani officials, say U.S. officials and private analysts.
“Ambassador Holbrooke has really struggled to build relationships with the civilian and military leaders in Afghanistan, and the military leadership in Pakistan,” said Andrew Exum, a former advisor to McChrystal and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
White House officials have been unhappy with Holbrooke for speaking out often and sometimes veering from the administration’s script.
Speaking in March at Harvard University, Holbrooke said that “almost every Pashtun family in southern Afghanistan has friends or family who are involved with the Taliban.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates hastily distanced himself from the comment.
Holbrooke has ruffled feathers at the National Security Council, as well. Holbrooke and Douglas E. Lute, the council’s senior official for Afghanistan and Pakistan, co-chair a weekly meeting at the State Department. But council officials, who coordinate such efforts under executive branch rules, have thought that Holbrooke tried to take too much control, according to U.S. officials.
Holbrooke also has had run-ins with Eikenberry, who believes that Holbrooke too often has tried to intervene on questions that the ambassador thought should be decided by civilian officials on the ground in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
National security advisor James L. Jones sent Eikenberry a letter in February that sympathized with his complaints about Holbrooke, but urged him to be patient because Holbrooke was on the way out, said U.S. officials who described the exchange.
Even so, many U.S. officials believe Holbrooke has staying power. Some say it is understood within the administration that, as a former columnist and magazine editor, he could inflict considerable damage from the outside.
“Richard’s a man who, when he starts a job, likes to see it through,” said Galbraith, who as ambassador to Croatia worked with Holbrooke in the 1990s. “If it’s his call, he’ll stay.”