Why Kabul may miss Holbrooke's gritty style
I had interviewed Richard Holbrooke on a few occasions. But the one that sticks out most was at the Democratic Convention in Denver 2008. A few months before the election, Holbrooke was being widely discussed as a possible US secretary of state if Barack Obama were to win.
The notion that the next president's most bitter rival on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton, might one day be offered that job - and take it - was too far-fetched even for the most optimistic fence-menders.
We were interviewing Holbrooke in his hotel for a documentary on Barack Obama and what his foreign policy might look like. He was late, apologised and sat down. I asked my first question. I can't remember what it was. But I do remember the answer. The possible future secretary of state, one of America's most high-profile diplomats, former ambassador at the UN and in Germany looked at me intently and then cleared his throat with the decibels of a roaring lion.
"Sorry, Matt," he croaked. "Rough night, REALLY rough!" The word rough sounded like two pieces of sandpaper rubbed together. It was vintage Holbrooke. He was the embodiment of the undiplomatic diplomat and he knew how to flatter journalists with misbehaviour.
We know that "the bulldozer's" gritty style didn't go down well in the slippery sweetness of some capitals. He frequently came to verbal blows with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. He was said to be deeply frustrated by the obfuscations served up in Islamabad.
But his style famously worked with the Bosnian factions in the mid-1990s to end a brutal, bloody war. It was a brilliant idea to force them all into a US airforce base in Dayton, Ohio. Holbrooke created a diplomatic conclave - Latin for "with key". Like the original conclaves at the Vatican, he told the factions, all lodged in airforce barracks with questionable food: you're not leaving till you strike a deal.
Dayton was definitely not Paris, Geneva or Rome. It had become a one-star camp for misbehaving warlords and Holbrooke did what the UN, the EU and the US - so far - had failed to achieve. He turned compromise into a less unpleasant alternative. He also understood the psychology of the Serbs: they're not suicidal, he once said, but they are infatuated with the mythology of their victimhood.
They may not miss him in Kabul as much as they profess today but Holbrooke understood better than most in Washington that the only solution to the war in Afghanistan is political, not military. He endorsed conditional dialogue with the Taliban. He believed that the Taliban could be separated from al-Qaeda. Kabul may miss him yet.