It was close to midnight on Jan. 20, 2009, and I was about to go to sleep when my iPhone beeped. There was a new text message. It was from Richard Holbrooke. It said, "Are you up, can you talk?" When I called, he told me that Barack Obama had asked him to serve as envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He would work out of the State Department, and he wanted me to join his team. "No one knows this yet. Don't tell anyone. Well, maybe your wife." (The Washington Post reported his appointment the next day.)
I first met Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat best known for making peace in the Balkans and breaking plenty of china along the way, at a 2006 conference in Aspen, Colorado. We sat together at one of the dinners and talked about Iran and Pakistan. Holbrooke ignored the keynote speech, the entertainment that followed, and the food that flowed in between to bombard me with questions. We had many more conversations over the next three years, and after I joined him on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2007, we spoke frequently by phone.
Now, making his sales pitch, Holbrooke told me that government is the sum of its people. "If you want to change things, you have to get involved. If you want your voice to be heard, then get inside." He knew I preferred to work on the Middle East and in particular Iran. But he had different ideas. "This [Afghanistan and Pakistan] matters more. This is what the president is focused on. This is where you want to be."
He was persuasive, and I knew that we were at a fork in the road. Regardless of what promises candidate Obama made on his way to the White House, Afghanistan now held the future -- his and America's -- in the balance. And it would be a huge challenge. When Obama took office, the war in Afghanistan was already in its eighth year. By then, the fighting had morphed into a full-blown insurgency, and the Taliban juggernaut looked unstoppable. They had adopted a flexible, decentralized military structure and even a national political organization, with shadow governors and district leaders for nearly every Afghan province. America was losing, and the enemy knew it. It was a disaster in the making.
But Holbrooke, who would have been secretary of state had Clinton won the presidency but had been vetoed by Obama to be her deputy when she accepted the State Department job instead, now insisted to me that he relished the chance to take on what he dubbed the "AfPak" portfolio. "Nothing is confirmed, but it is pretty much a done deal," he told me. "If you get any other offers, let me know right away." Then he laughed and said, "If you work for anyone else, I will break your knees. This is going to be fun. We are going to do some good. Now get some sleep."
Two months later, I was at my desk at SRAP, as the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan quickly became known. Those first few months were a period of creativity and hope. Holbrooke had carved out a little autonomous principality on the State Department's first floor, filling it with young diplomats, civil servants, and outside experts like me, straight to the job from a tenured post at Tufts University. Scholars, journalists, foreign dignitaries, members of Congress, and administration officials walked in daily to get their fill of how AfPak strategy was shaping up. Even Hollywood got in on SRAP. Angelina Jolie lent a hand to help refugees in Pakistan, and the usually low-key State Department cafeteria was abuzz when Holbrooke sat down for coffee with Natalie Portman to talk Afghanistan.
People started early and worked late into the night, and there was a constant flow of new ideas, like how to cut corruption and absenteeism among the Afghan police by using mobile banking and cell phones to pay salaries; how to use text messaging to raise money for refugees; or how to stop the Taliban from shutting down mobile-phone networks by putting cell towers on military bases. SRAP had more of the feel of an Internet start-up than a buttoned-up State Department office.