WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is trying to dismiss the reported last words of veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, its point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan who passed away this week, as a joke.
Administration officials said Tuesday that Holbrooke's final words, "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan," were part of a jovial back-and-forth with the medical staff.
"At one point, the medical team said, 'You've got to relax,'" State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Tuesday, relaying what he said he had heard from people who were in the room with Holbrooke at George Washington University Hospital. "And Richard said, 'I can't relax, I'm worrying about Afghanistan and Pakistan.' After some additional exchanges ... finally [Holbrooke's surgeon] said, 'Tell you what, we'll try to fix this challenge while you're in surgery.' And [Holbrooke] said, 'Yeah, see if you can take care of that,' including ending the war."
Added Crowley: "But certainly, it says two things about Richard Holbrooke in my mind. Number one, he always wanted to make sure he got the last word. And secondly, it just showed how he was singularly focused on pursuing and advancing the process and the policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring them to a successful conclusion."
During Tuesday's White House press briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs provided a similar response following a reporter's question. Gibbs likewise said Holbrooke's comments demonstrated his commitment to his work.
In the meantime, Holbrooke's remarks have ricocheted around the Internet and in the media, striking a chord with many who have reservations about the war and President Barack Obama's stated plan to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 to prepare for a full handover to Afghan security forces in 2014.
On Thursday, Obama will present his administration's strategic review on the war, focusing on al Qaeda's senior leadership as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. He met with his advisors for nearly two hours Tuesday, recommending several changes to the report that will be made public, Gibbs said during Tuesday's press briefing.
Gibbs said the report outlines both the progress and challenges that remain on the three fronts but won't recommend any change in withdrawal.
"I think we are on course for the July 2011 date, based on the conditions that you have always heard the president say," said Gibbs.
The press secretary said he is not aware of any White House discussions to date regarding a replacement for Holbrooke.