Holbrooke arrives with pivotal mission for 2010

The US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan has landed in the UAE for a multi-nation conference on the two countries.

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Richard Holbrooke is one of the most accomplished diplomats, American or otherwise, of his generation. At 36, he was the youngest assistant US secretary of state ever. He has served as a Peace Corps official and as US ambassador to the United Nations.

Most famously, as assistant secretary of state for Europe, Mr Holbrooke orchestrated the 1995 Dayton peace accords, ending the three-year war in Bosnia, where 200,000 Muslims, Croats and Serbs were butchered in an orgy of "ethnic cleansing". Such a stellar résumé will come in handy, too, because as a pivotal year gets underway in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr Holbrooke, 68, will need all the guile, persistence and experience he can muster.

That year shifts into high gear today, when Mr Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, attends a meeting in Abu Dhabi of his counterparts from scores of other nations and international organisations. The UAE is hosting the gathering, which also will be attended by the foreign ministers from both Islamabad and Kabul. Upon his arrival last night, Mr Holbrooke was to meet Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE foreign minister, for consultations. Sheikh Abdullah also was scheduled to participate in the meetings today.

The significance of the meeting site was not lost on either Mr Holbrooke or the UAE government. "The UAE wants to host these meetings. This is a significant statement of support from a major country in the Gulf. And they are supporting the effort very much," the 68-year-old veteran diplomat told Charlie Rose, a US talk-show host, recently. Abu Dhabi and other Arab capitals have an intrinsic stake in the troubles roiling the Asian neighbours, a UAE diplomatic source said. "It is not only a western issue. It is an issue for the region and the wider Muslim world."

The UAE has 250 soldiers carrying out "stabilisation" and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, according to the website of the Emirati embassy in Washington. Since 2003, funding for local projects and reconstruction in Afghanistan by the UAE government, the UAE Red Crescent and the private individuals has totaled US$71 million (Dh261m), the website said. Furthermore, at a meeting last April of the "Friends of Democratic Pakistan" grouping hosted by Abu Dhabi, the UAE pledged $300m to Islamabad to "alleviate poverty and battle extremism".

The agenda for today's meeting was not publicly disclosed. However, Daniel Feldman, a deputy to Mr Holbrooke, said last week that Pakistan's economic development plans and strengthening Afghanistan's democratic institutions were "critical issues" to be discussed. Preparations for a gathering of foreign ministers this month in London to address specifically the problems of Afghanistan and Yemen would continue in Abu Dhabi, too, Mr Feldman said.

"This is all a work in progress. But it's a very, very significant effort to control resources better, to coordinate better, to work internationally much more effectively," he said at the US state department. Headway on all these counts cannot happen soon enough. As the United States begins deploying an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, concerns are escalating in Pakistan that a stepped-up war against the Taliban in Afghanistan could send militants fleeing to the tribal areas of Pakistan's northwest and add further tinder to an already volatile situation.

Furthermore, economic conditions have, if anything, worsened in both countries, despite the US$60 billion in foreign aid that has been funnelled to Afghanistan and the $15.4bn that has flowed to Pakistan since September 11. There are more than 200,000 foreign troops and US defence department contractors in Afghanistan, yet, according to one Afghan legislator quoted this week by the Associated Press, about 80 per cent of the country is still without electricity and unemployment is 60 per cent.

Many families can only afford to eat once a day and corruption is so rampant, "it's practically legal", the legislator and former presidential candidate, Ramazan Bashardost, told the news agency. Mr Holbrooke's job is to oversee and help strike a delicate balance between the civilian and military components of a counter-insurgency campaign. And if any diplomat can navigate these murky waters, it may be Mr Holbrooke.

In an article for Harper's magazine that he wrote in 1965, Mr Holbrooke described his admiration for "action-intellectuals" - those government officials possessed of "a rare combination of intelligence and flair for decisive action". In the course of his long career, which has included stints as a Wall Street investment banker and as managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, he succeeded in fashioning himself such a figure. In both admiration and derision, he has been called a "precision-guided munition", "Raging Bull" and - in a distinction he shares with the former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon - "the Bulldozer".

Alongside those who revere him, there are critics. For the sake of a US military bases agreement, he coddled, some say, the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and condoned his government's human rights abuses in the late 1970s. He supported military aid to the right-wing military government of El Salvador and covert action to overthrow the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. Still, few have disputed Mr Holbrooke's persistence, his intelligence and his willingness to investigate for himself the consequences of policies cobbled together from afar.

Most relevant, perhaps, to Mr Holbrooke's current brief in Afghanistan and Pakistan - or "PakAf", as his 30-person office recently re-dubbed it - is that the US defeat in Vietnam seems hard-wired into his DNA. It was there that he was first posted as a young foreign service officer, fresh out of university. There, he saw a failed counter-insurgency and the lessons have not been forgotten. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, held a news conference to announce Mr Holbrooke's appointment in January, he spotted a longtime colleague and former roommate in Vietnam, John Negroponte, in the audience.

"I hope we will produce a better outcome this time," he said. The audience laughed nervously. @Email:cnelson@thenational.ae