Gen. Stanley McChrystal might think Special Representative Richard Holbrooke is "like a wounded animal," as his aides apparently told Rolling Stone magazine, but diplomatic and administration sources tell a different story; Holbrooke is as strong and as involved as ever in the administration's dealings in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan -- and he is not going anywhere any time soon.
"Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he's going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous," one of McChrystal's aides reportedly said in the Rolling Stone profile. The general is headed to Washington now to attend Wednesday's White House strategy session, "to explain to the Pentagon and the commander in chief his quotes in the piece about his colleagues," an administration official said.
Holbrooke will not be in the room, still on his trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where in between getting shot at, he held some very high-level meetings with senior Pakistani leaders.
Diplomatic sources said that Holbrooke, who took his activity largely out of the public eye following an open dispute with Afghan President Hamid Karzai following last year's presidential election, is experiencing a quiet resurgence inside the administration, taking a lead role in dealing with Pakistan as National Security Advisor Jim Jones is tied up with so many other issues.
Jones made efforts to travel quietly and avoid making headlines. This is the lesson Holbrooke has learned, foreign officials say, and as a result his influence is increasing. Administration sources argue that Holbrooke's engagement never waned -- just the perception of his role due to the lack of public appearances that could be covered by the press.
"Insiders say Obama's envoy -- a talented diplomat and notorious jerk -- has lousy relations with Afghans and Pakistanis alike," the Rolling Stone article said. "Why he's staying: White House fears a ‘tell-all' more than his diplomatic blunders."
But one Pakistani government official said that Holbrooke's just-completed trip to Pakistan showed he has constructive relations with that government. Holbrooke went to tackle some very sensitive issues, including the Obama administration's request for more counterterrorism cooperation from Pakistan, the drive to increase American intelligence and diplomatic presence on the ground there, and the related need to make continued progress on visas for American officials and aid workers, which are currently being held up the Ministry of Interior.
The Pakistanis, in turn, asked Holbrooke for the release of $1.3 billion of "coalition support funding" - reimbursals for Pakistani military and intelligence operations -- that they say they are owed.
Holbrooke has also become a key go-between in the dispute between Congress and the Pakistani government over how exactly to disperse $7.5 billion of new aid to Pakistan that was approved last year by Congress. Sen. John Kerry, a cosponsor of the legislation providing the funding, has been sending letters to Holbrooke asking him to make sure there is transparency and accountability on the funds and Holbrooke has been assuring Kerry that will be the case.
Holbrooke is also helping to lay the groundwork for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. That trip hasn't yet been announced, but will take place in late July.
Experts say Holbrooke's long, personal relationship with Clinton affords him a measure of job security. And his involvement in the joint Afghanistan-Pakistan effort to figure out how to engage the Taliban also makes him indispensable in the near term.
"Holbrooke is very deeply invested in the idea of a reintegration program," said Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"He is still the center of the universe on decisions in the U.S. government as far as Pakistan is concerned," Shaffer said.
Clinton's trip will mark the culmination of the first phase after the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue, which took place in Washington last month. U.S.-Pakistan meetings have continued since then, and have included sessions led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Chip Gregson, Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones, National Security Council Senior Director David Lipton, and Undersecretary of State Maria Otero.
Upcoming U.S.-Pakistan dialogue sessions will include Ambassador for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, Counterterrorism Coordinator Dan Benjamin, Justice Department Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bruce Schwartz, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, and others.