WASHINGTON - Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was in critical condition Saturday after surgery to repair a torn aorta, a State Department spokesman said.

Holbrooke, 69, underwent surgery Saturday morning after becoming ill at the State Department the day before, spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

The special envoy was in an intensive-care unit at George Washington University Hospital, Crowley said in a statement, noting that Holbrooke had been joined by his family.

Citing administration officials, the New York Times said Holbrooke fell ill Friday during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He was able to walk out of her office to seek medical attention.

Clinton visited Holbrooke on Friday and Saturday, her spokesman, Philippe Reines, said.

Just days into office, President Obama named Holbrooke the special representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan, making him the point man in the administration's bid to forge a policy to stabilize the two fragile states. The hard-charging diplomat nicknamed "the Bulldozer" is best known for helping broker the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Duke Cameron, chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said in an interview Saturday that a tear in the aorta is the most life-threatening emergency involving the heart's major artery.

He said more than 90 percent of people who suffer aortic tears die, most within two days of the tear. But if a patient is near a good hospital with an open-heart surgery team available, the chances of pulling through are about 80 percent, he said.

The key is whether the aortic tear triggers another problem, such as a heart attack or stroke, he said.

If all goes well after surgery, patients generally need three to four months to recover, he said, but if there are other problems, recovery could take years. And in some cases, Cameron said, people never quite return to their former state of health.

Holbrooke was Clinton's chief foreign policy adviser during the 2008 presidential primary campaign, before switching over to advise Obama in the general election campaign.

In announcing Holbrooke's appointment, Clinton said conditions in Afghanistan, where U.S.-led forces have battled the Taliban for nine years, required an integrated strategy involving neighboring Pakistan. Clinton said Holbrooke would work with USAID, the State and Defense Departments, the National Security Council, NATO allies, and others.

Holbrooke, who joined the Foreign Service 38 years ago, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for President Bill Clinton from 1999 to 2001.

His highest-profile success was as assistant secretary of state for Europe from 1994 to '96, when he served as architect of the accords that ended the Bosnian war, which was characterized by genocide committed by Serbian forces. Holbrooke later became President Clinton's special envoy to Bosnia and Kosovo and later to Cyprus.