As Mr Holbrooke understood, the Afghan war is a no-win prospect. Washington must be honest about the prospects as it looks to leave.
Urgent window to prepare for Afghan exit
The loss of America's diplomatic "bulldozer", as Richard Holbrooke was known, was a serious blow to US foreign policy. For Washington's efforts in Afghanistan, a further loss would be to abandon Mr Holbrooke's commitment to a diplomatic solution to the war.
When President Barack Obama unveils his latest Afghan war strategy today, he is expected to stick to plans to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, suggesting that he, like many in his administration, is longing for an exit.
Details on the pace of withdrawal will be scant. But that Mr Obama remains committed to any date at all suggests it is time to consider a future without an overwhelming US military presence. This is what Mr Holbrooke had been trying to accomplish, and it is an approach that deserves renewed attention in his absence.
There have been tenuous steps towards building civilian capacity. As we reported yesterday, for instance, a recent oil deal to pump a modest 800 barrels a day may help to boost investor confidence in the country's untapped natural resource sector. Such confidence could have a ripple effect.
Yet gains on that side are more than matched by declining support for the American counterinsurgency effort, not to mention a Kabul government considered corrupt to the core. As a pair of American intelligence reports leaked this week reminds us, Taliban control is spreading and fleeting military gains have been offset by Pakistan's unbending, yet unspoken, policy of tolerating militant havens on its territory. No wonder pessimism is mounting.
Nato forces will continue to make gains in areas it fully engages. The trouble is, Nato forces have never fully been supported for a counterinsurgency campaign. That will not change. As Washington eyes the exits, and prepares Afghan forces to assume control by 2014, non-military measures have to be explored and explained, as Mr Holbrooke was trying to do.
There are plenty of unpleasant realities awaiting Nato's eventual departure, none more jarring than the fact that the Taliban must be part of any settlement. This may not be what Washington envisioned when it went to war, but it must be honest about the prospect as it looks to leave.
All is not yet lost. But as Mr Holbrooke understood, the Afghan war is a no-win prospect. His last words - "stop this war in Afghanistan" - were said to his physician in jest. It will be up to his successors to carry that mission forward.