As the Obama administration agonizes over Afghanistan and a flurry of insurgent attacks in neighboring Pakistan rocks that country, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke has become, surprisingly, nearly invisible. When it came to convincing, cajoling or coercing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept the inevitability of a runoff election, who did the heavy lifting?

Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and our able ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, took on that task. After a marathon session that included 20 hours of talks, Karzai finally capitulated. Fortuitously, Kerry was in Kabul on a fact-finding mission. But Holbrooke remained out of that picture, in part because of a reportedly and understandably rocky relationship with Karzai and his often prickly attitude towards America.

Similarly in Pakistan, Holbrooke’s role has become muted. Indeed, senior Pakistani officials have privately complained about Holbrooke’s very public presence when he visits and the negative impact it is having on a Pakistani public already very angry with what is seen as American encroachment on Pakistan’s sovereignty. That could be another reason for Holbrooke’s reduced visibility. And in the many strategy sessions in the White House over Afghanistan, beyond the president and vice president, it is national security adviser Jim Jones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen and, of course, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who are the key principals. So where is Dick Holbrooke, the world wonders?

The use of the phrase “the world wonders” is not accidental. It came into prominence 65 years ago this month as U.S. forces landed in Leyte to retake the Philippines in the last great naval battle both of World War II and since, making good Gen. Douglas McArthur’s vow that “I shall return.” To beat off this invasion, the Japanese navy launched a three-pronged attack. One of the prongs was a decoy force designed to lure Adm. William F. Halsey, commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet, away from protecting the beachhead with his powerful battle force. The bait was Japanese aircraft carriers sans aircraft due to the huge losses of pilots and planes sustained by the navy, something Halsey did not know at the time.

Halsey took the bait and hurried north as a second Japanese force steamed from the west into Leyte Gulf, then guarded by small American “jeep” aircraft carriers whose warplanes carried anti-personnel and not anti-ship bombs and destroyer escorts whose 5-inch guns were no match for more than a foot of armor plating on the Japanese battleships and cruisers. In closing to torpedo-firing range, these “tin cans” were making suicide runs. Back in Hawaii, Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific and Halsey’s boss, was monitoring radio communications. Realizing Halsey had left the beach unprotected, Nimitz queried Halsey as to where the U.S. fast battleship covering force, called Task Force 34, was.

The message Halsey received from Nimitz read, “Where, repeat, where is TF 34 … the world wonders.” Unfortunately, the phrase “the world wonders” was padding inserted to confuse Japanese code breakers by a young ensign in Pearl Harbor commemorating the anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War made famous in Tennyson’s poem. Halsey was enraged by the unintended rebuke. He reversed course with the Japanese navy almost within range of his 16-inch guns and headed at flank speed back to Leyte. But due to the extraordinary courage of the jeep carrier pilots and destroyer escorts, their determined and largely pinprick attacks convinced the Japanese admiral help was on the way, and he retreated without destroying the U.S. invading force.

Today, that battle is relevant. No one wants to be duped and sail in the wrong direction based on erroneous evidence or misjudgment. Clearly, military commanders are in agreement that more forces are needed for Afghanistan. That message was reinforced by NATO last week when the alliance’s defense ministers concurred with the assessment prepared by the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal. However, no one volunteered to send more troops. And more troops are not the answer if Afghans are not prepared to assume full responsibility for their country.

Success or failure will rest on many factors. Key among them, however, is the degree of certainty that sufficient Afghan security forces will be recruited, trained and sustained to replace our troops and the time that will take. Unless or until this question can be answered satisfactorily, any troop increase on our part will be at best a bet and at worst a huge mistake.

The world wonders that in making this incredibly difficult decision on Afghanistan whether this White House and Holbrooke will avoid emulating Halsey at Leyte and, this time, sail in the right direction.

Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense UniversityThis essay was previously published as “Where is Dick Holbrooke?” in UPI