We're in the midst of the biggest political crisis in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. Pakistan has launched a major offensive into the South Waziristan tribal area, a move that was preceded by a string of murderous terrorist attacks against Pakistani security forces. U.S.-Pakistani relations almost went thermonuclear over a U.S. aid bill that Pakistani military saw as a hammer against it.
Where then is Richard C. Holbrooke, the president's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan?
The hard-charging Holbrooke is hardly known as a shrinking violet, and he has a legendary reputation for working the news media, including special briefings for his favorite reporters. But his public profile has gone from hero to zero in recent weeks.
A quick check of the State Department web site shows that Holbrooke's last public appearance before the media was nearly a month ago, during the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Coincidence? We thought not. And after a couple of phone calls, Warren and Jon here at N&S figured out what's up.
Three administration officials, who asked not to be identified by agency, told us that, while Holbrooke is laboring away hard behind the scenes, he's received direct orders from the White House to cool it publicly while Washington desperately tries to unscramble the Afghan electoral mess between President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.
"This process is so sensitive. He'd love to deal with this. The White House thinks ... it's not the time for him" to be out front, one of the officials said of Holbrooke.
Perhaps it was that reported shouting match in Kabul a few weeks back between Karzai and Holbrooke?
Instead, it's Sen. John Kerry - a man not known for shouting - who has been in the Afghan capital, dickering with Karzai in the hopes of getting him to accept a run-off, or a compromise with Abdullahx2.
To be fair -- and we do try to be fair here at N&S, we're told that the White House orders are not directed at Holbrooke alone. Everyone involved in Af/Pak policy has been told to keep a lid on it while President Obama deals with the difficult decision of how to keep the situation there from dropping into the abyss and whether to send more American servicemen and women to Afghanistan.
The orders followed remarks a few weeks back by Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to the effect that a "counter-terrorism" strategy, relying on fewer troops and more Predator drone strikes, wouldn't be effective. The remarks were widely seen as limiting the president's options.
"McChrystal got ahead of the process and was pulled back," said a second U.S. official. "In light of that, we have said to all of the people who are involved in the review process: your words should be directed to the president and the principals (senior advisers) and not to the public. This has not been directed at Richard, but to all of the officials involved in the process."
"The idea here is to leave the prerogatives to the president. By accident, McChrystal was seen as jamming the commander in chief."