Washington has been abuzz with stories speculating about the role of special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, the gregarious U.S. diplomat who has been somewhat absent from public appearances recently.
Salacious headlines such as "Holbrooke missing from Afghan talks" and "Where's Dick?" have led off articles citing unnamed sources to speculate that the White House had sought to diminish Holbrooke's usually public persona, especially since the last-minute diplomacy to convince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to allow an election runoff was led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.
But in an exclusive interview with The Cable, Holbrooke refuted the reports of his marginalization with a mix of indignation and bewilderment. He's been intimately involved in all the goings-on related to the situation in Afghanistan and his lack of media appearances is due to his hectic and relentless work as part of the administration's ongoing review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, he said.
"I didn't know I was missing in action because I was kind of busy all day," said Holbrooke, denying that the White House had given him any instructions to lay low or stay out of the public eye, as has been alleged.
Holbrooke and his staff have been working late hours every day to feed information to the endless string of White House meetings on Afghanistan. He broke away Wednesday evening to attend a reception at the New America Foundation to celebrate the publication of the latest book by his wife, Kati Marton.
He said he "has no interest" in the press stories discussing his lack of face time with the media, but took exception to one editorial in the New York Times, which wondered aloud about his status.
Holbrooke's absence from Afghanistan during what many see as a crucial time in Afghan politics also spurred rumors and speculation that Holbrooke was not welcome there because of a reported feud with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a feud that Holbrooke has clearly denied.
"The truth is that I go Afghanistan every two months and I was there less than two months ago. When I came back, I knew we were plunging into the biggest imaginable policy debate," Holbrooke said. "So [Secretary of State] Hillary [Clinton] and I mutually felt that my place at this time was to stay here."
Holbrooke said he will travel to Afghanistan and India next month, on the tail end of Clinton's trip to Pakistan, but the exact dates haven't been worked out yet.
"That was always the plan," he said.
His concern is that he isn't sure about the timing of President Obama's decision to rollout the new Af-Pak strategy and he didn't want to be abroad when the announcement is made.
"This is the most intense policy review before a big decision that I've ever been involved in," said Holbrooke. "He's really thinking it through."
There will be a principals meeting on Af-Pak in the White House Thursday and a National Security Council meeting led by Obama within the next few days.
Holbrooke said he had 25 conversations with Kerry throughout the recent election negotiations, including two on Wednesday (although he did not attend Kerry's latest meeting with Obama). Kerry's preplanned presence in the region to deal with the fallout of his Pakistan aid bill was fortuitous, Holbrooke explained, and he fully supported Kerry's representation of the U.S. government in the region this week.
"We encouraged John to get in on this," he said, "I have never seen a better interaction between a member of Congress and an executive branch on a major issue and the stakes yesterday were extraordinarily high."
He rejected the notion that Kerry was supplanting his role as the face of American policy in Afghanistan.
"Only a troublemaking journalist would think of something like that," Holbrooke joked.
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