The real task before Holbrooke – by Rahimullah Yusufzai

The real task before Holbrooke
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Rahimullah Yusufzai

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar

By naming top-ranking diplomat Richard Holbrooke as the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration of President Barack Obama has decided to adopt a new and more focused approach to a region it calls one of the world’s two hotspots, the other being the Middle East. But the policy for tackling the conflict, which was triggered by the Al-Qaeda-sponsored 9/11 attacks on the US and escalated following the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, will basically remain the same, as the stress is on winning the so-called “war on terror” through the use of greater force.

The 67-year old Holbrooke, once dubbed the Kissinger of the Balkans for brokering the Dayton Peace Accords between the Bosnian warring factions in 1995, will be expected to push the Afghan and Pakistani governments to cooperate with each other and with the US-led NATO forces to defeat the resurgent Taliban, the stubborn Al-Qaeda and other likeminded resistance groups fighting on both sides of the long and porous Pakistani-Afghan border. He will be required to marshal all political and diplomatic efforts and coordinate with the Pentagon to achieve this objective, at a time when another 30,000 or so American soldiers are being sent to Afghanistan as part of a surge to strengthen the defences of Kabul city, outgun and outmanoeuvre Taliban fighters in the eastern and southern Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan and extend the writ of the beleaguered government of President Hamid Karzai.

With the arrival of the fresh US troops, the number of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan will almost reach 100,000, but it is still far short of the figure of 400,000 that the American and NATO military commanders need to fully secure and stabilise Afghanistan. As neither the US nor its reluctant NATO allies are able, or willing, to provide the required number of troops, it would be pertinent to ask whether the military option is still viable for the winning of the difficult battle in Afghanistan.

This isn’t the first time that the US has appointed a special envoy to a region that is deemed vital to American and Western interest. In our part of the world, special US envoys were appointed for Afghanistan in the 1980s to organise mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupying forces and secure the cooperation of regional countries such as Pakistan. The task before the special US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan this time is different as he has to assist the Afghan government and Islamabad’s cooperation to vanquish the new breed of Islamic militants who are not much different from the mujahideen and collectively referred to as Taliban. During the Afghan jihad non-state actors were being equipped and trained to fight the established order represented by the Moscow-backed communist regime in Kabul. Now the US and its allies are strengthening and pushing the governments in Kabul and Islamabad to fight the assorted non-state actors, ranging from al-Qaeda to the Taliban and their jihadi friends belonging to several radical groups. Priorities have changed, and so has the US policy, while countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, as always, will be left to bear the consequences.

Mr Holbrooke is qualified and suited to his new job. He is a Democrat and obviously enjoys the trust of President Obama and, in particular, of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was part of the latter’s presidential campaign and would be reporting to her. He has been a diplomat, author, editor and investment banker. He is the only US diplomat to have served as assistant secretary of state for two different regions, Asia and Europe. The New York-born was US ambassador to Germany and served as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Cyprus and Kosovo. He was also US ambassador to the UN. Mr Holbrooke remained chairman of the Asia Society and headed the Terrorism Task Force at another think tank, the Council for Foreign Relations. The thrice married diplomat is a Jew and his wife, Kati Marton, is an author and journalist.

On the flip side, Mr Holbrooke cannot be termed as an expert on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He certainly knows this area and is familiar with the issues confronting the two countries, but it would take time for him to develop an understanding with the leading players in the region. He paid a visit to Pakistan some months ago, and it was apparently aimed at familiarising himself with the country and its government, politicians and other important people in anticipation of securing the job of special envoy or some other diplomatic assignment in the new administration. He also came to Peshawar and met a select number of people at an event hosted by NWFP governor Owais Ahmad Ghani. That visit must certainly have benefited him in knowing about the views and aspirations of Pakistanis dealing with the issues of militancy and terrorism and their expectations from the US.

Some American political commentators have pointed out that Mr Holbrooke will have to alter his style and control his temper, as people in Afghanistan and Pakistan–as well as in India and other neighbouring countries, if the idea is to adopt a regional approach to tackling terrorism–are sensitive and not used to listening to tough talk. He has the reputation of being tough talking and very assertive, and this could cause diplomatic rows. His robust diplomacy while securing the Dayton Peace Accords prompted analysts to describe him as the “Bulldozer of the Balkans.”

Mr Holbrooke’s views on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan are known. He has been critical of the Karzai government for being ineffective and corrupt. His stress on good governance in Afghanistan and demands on President Karzai to do more to rein in the warlords, drug barons and corrupt government functionaries will put him on the path of confrontation with the increasingly insecure Afghan leader. In fact, Mr Karzai is fast losing the support of his American and Western benefactors and it seems the search is now on for a new Afghan president. The names of former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and ex-interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali are being mentioned as likely presidential contenders to replace Karzai, who has already announced his candidature. He has become somewhat critical of the Western armies for killing civilians and not doing enough to help Afghanistan and tackle “terrorism sanctuaries” in neighbouring Pakistan.

Like other US government officials and experts, Mr Holbrooke has described the situation in Pakistan as complex and the tribal areas as dangerous. In his view, the current conflict has intertwined Pakistan and Afghanistan, even though these are distinct countries with their own traditions. Mr Holbrooke’s task in Islamabad would be facilitated if the $15 billion non-military US assistance to Pakistan came through now, with its prime mover, Senator Joe Biden, now vice-president. He would need to offer more carrots to Pakistan and see to it that the money is put to good use in winning hearts and minds in the North-West Frontier Province, where anti-US sentiment appears to be at the highest.

Over the past seven years, American money has been mostly used for military means in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and one sure outcome of this policy was death and destruction and a rise in feelings against America. Even though belated, a change in policy and tactics is needed to stabilize this region. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case at this stage in view of the US belief, which the Obama administration seems to share with the one led by George W Bush, that Western forces could still prevail in Afghanistan by using force. Increasingly, America’s European allies don’t appear to agree with Washington’s tactics and some of them would like to get their troops out quickly of Afghanistan. The surge of foreign troops in Afghanistan is also being opposed by most Afghans and the decision to arm Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban has generated controversy. It is possible that the Obama administration is aiming to gain an upper hand through the troops’ surge before opting to hold a dialogue for resolving the conflict with the Taliban from a position of strength.

It is a complex situation, more so for a new US administration and its trouble-shooter for the region. Mr Holbrooke will, in due course of time, find out if his skills in ending the conflict in the Balkans would be of any use in tackling the more challenging problems in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.




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