COMMENTARY
 
Holbrooke’s Daunting Mission in South Asia
Weekly Pulse
January 22-28, 2010
Richard Holbrooke certainly had a hard time negotiating the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, especially in “bulldozing” the recalcitrant and hostile Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, but he seems to be having even harder time bringing the supposedly friendly governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on the same counter-terrorism platform as the US Administration of President Barack Obama expects to be in place in South Asia in 2010.

The US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is a frequent flyer to the region. Each time his stated intention is to consult regional leaders on the evolving war and counter-terrorism strategy, which actually means seeking their support consistent with the US strategic goals. Yet, on every occasion, the American allies in the war against terrorism have their own list of excuses and concerns. The Afghans promise to govern better, yet the ground reality speaks to the contrary. Pakistanis express additional worries, from drone attacks jeopardizing sovereignty to the spillover effect of the Afghan war.

And India and Pakistan have their own axes to grind against each other, if New Delhi is added to Mr. Holbrooke’s travel itinerary. The same transpired during his recent tour of the three South Asian countries, which preceded that of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

It was the US special envoy’s sixth visit to the region since taking over his position in February 2009, and the first since President Obama announced the revised US strategy for the Afghan war on December 1.

Make or Break Year

With the deployment of thousands of additional US and NATO troops, the Afghan war will intensify from spring onwards, and, therefore, this year will be crucial in determining the outcome of the US-led Afghan war and the international campaign against terrorism in the region. The daunting task before Mr. Holbrooke is to seek maximum input from regional states in winning a difficult war and defeating the terrorists. However, the regional response thus far is not so conducive. During his public appearances in Pakistan, he appeared quite worn out, if not due to jet lag, then perhaps due to frustration with the complexity of his current global diplomatic assignment that pales all other diplomatic missions, be it the envoy at UN or the principal mediator of the Bosnia conflict.

Since his last trip to the region months ago, the Afghan leadership has continued to maky lofty promises to improve governance, end corruption and re-integrate Taliban, yet when it comes to actually delivering on these serious issues, its track-record remains highly questionable. Pakistanis have of late become quite jittery on the sovereignty issue, and, as before, quite reluctant in taking on those Taliban groups allegedly fueling Afghan insurgency from their tribal areas. And the Indians are not at all prepared to heed the American advice not raise the security stakes for Pakistan, as it struggles against its own Taliban groups in South Waziristan.

Pakistan was the first country Mr Holbrooke visited, spending more time there than in Afghanistan and India. The reason is quite understandable: Beginning with the passage of controversial Kerry-Lugar Bill by the US Senate on September 24, a number of unsettled counter-terrorism issues have caused visible strains in US-Pakistan relations in recent months.

Salient Contributions

Mr. Holbrooke tried to put the best gloss possible on the increasingly difficult relationship with Pakistan by claiming significant improvement in its ties with the United States and highlighting the significant contribution Washington was making to the country at a difficult juncture. He cited a number of initiatives the US government had already taken or was intended to take to improve relationship between the two counter-terror allies. For instance, the US aid for the country’s energy sector amounting to $ 4 billion over four years, starting with $ 16.5 million aid for Tarbela Dam’s power generation enhancement. This programme is in line with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s October initiative to provide $ 125 million for Pakistan’s energy sector.

The US envoy visited the Swat Valley, praising the Pakistan army for its unprecedented counter-insurgency success in the region and stressing the role the US government had played for rehabilitation and reconstruction of the damaged infrastructure, especially schools and roads, with $170 million in emergency assistance.

He also assured the government for the payment of $840 million under the Kerry-Lugar Act during the current fiscal year and the immediate release of $349 million under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), while expediting reimbursement of the remaining money. In the case of CSF, however, Mr. Holbrooke’s point was that the delay had occurred because of the inability of two US auditors to acquire Pakistani visas, an issue Prime Minister Yousaf Reza Gillani promised to expedite.

Following the foiled terrorist bid in the United States on the eve of Christmas, the US Department of Homeland Security has put Pakistani citizens travelling to the United States along with citizens of 13 other countries on the list of passengers who have to go through new screening measures. Mr. Holbrooke responded to the concern raised by Pakistani leadership on the issue by promising a review by the Secretary Homeland Security.

Negative Reactions

Obviously, the visiting US envoy had his own concerns to share with the Pakistani leadership and politicians, one of which he bluntly did at a breakfast meeting with politicians from ruling and opposition parties. PPP Information Secretary Fauzia Wahab, who attended the gathering, later quoted Mr. Holbrooke as complaining that Pakistani politicians and media hardly mention the positive steps taken by the US for the development of their country.

The acknowledgement of these contributions, in his view, will help the Obama administration to seek Congressional approval for more US aid for the country. Mr. Holbrooke may be justified in arguing that points of friction in the US-Pakistan ties generally receive more media coverage and political criticism. Even though a lot of positive developments have occurred in this relationship under the Obama Administration, they are neither highlighted by the country’s vibrant media, nor do they receive the sort of political appreciation the US expects.

Unlike his predecessor, President Obama has attempted to take regional countries, especially Pakistan, on board while announcing major security and political initiatives on the Afghan war. His administration considers Pakistan’s role in realizing the goals of Af-Pak strategy as crucial. Mr. Holbrooke’s praise for the army’s success in Swat and in the ongoing offensive in South Waziristan is part of Obama Administration’s policy of seeking maximum Pakistani help for defeating al-Qaeda and its Taliban and other insurgent-terrorist allies in the region.

Counter-Terrorism Issues

The United States expects Pakistan to extend its counter-terror campaign to North Waziristan, which it perceives to be a hub of the Haqqani terrorist network involved in insurgency against US, NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. Such US expectation is in line with Obama Administration’s decision to add 30,000 more US troops to the Afghan battlefield in 2010.

Pakistan has its own reasons not to extend the counter-insurgency mission to North Waziristan, as the army’s fight against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and its foreign terrorist allies in South Waziristan is still far from over. Yet the most important area of friction in US-Pakistan counter-terrorism ties in the tribal areas remains unaddressed—since, in US perceptions, the country still draws a line between tribal areas-based Taliban groups committing terrorism inside Pakistan and Taliban groups operating from the same region and fueling Afghan insurgency.

The growing intensity in drone attacks in North and South Waziristan since August, when one such attack eliminated Pakistan’s Enemy No 1, Baitullah Mehsud, has emerged as another serious issue over which Islamabad has at least publicly started to increasingly condemn Washington. The Prime Minister, President Asif Ali Zardari and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, during their respective meetings with Mr. Holbrooke, have strongly urged him to review the US drone strategy. For his part, the US envoy has assured a significant decrease in the number of drone strikes.

On the drone issue, Pakistani government and security leaders are alleged to be privately not as critical as they are generally in their press statements. For instance, if on the eve of Mr. Holbrooke’s visit, TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud was reumoured to have been killed in a drone attack on January 12, with the US envoy calling him as “one of the worst people.” Rightly so, as the Pakistani Taliban leader was behind the killing of seven CIA agents in a suicide attack in Afghanistan's Khost province on December 30.

Over a week later, a videotape released to the international media had shown Hakimullah sitting next to the Jordanian suicide bomber Dr Humam Khalil al-Balawi. This was an additional proof of the link between Pakistani Taliban and Afghan insurgency. Yet the US envoy, instead of engaging in coercive diplomacy with his Pakistani counterparts, argued that the ruthlessness of militants like Hakimullah is beginning to "backfire" on the extremist network's operations in Pakistan, resulting in public opinion not supportive of their terrorist cause in the country.

Afghan Uncertainties

While in Afghanistan and India, Mr Holbrooke continued to highlight the successes Pakistani government and security forces had achieved in the past year in Swat and South Waziristan. The US and its Western allies expect the regime of President Hamid Karzai to craft a reintegration programme to bring some 20,000 to 35,000 low to mid-level Taliban militants back into Afghan society through a variety of incentives, including jobs and vocational training.

It is still uncertain whether President Karzai, who will travel to the much-publicized international donors’ conference on Afghanistan in London on January 28 without completing the new Afghan Cabinet formation process, will be able to meet such and other international expectations about future governance that is more efficient and less corrupt.

India’s Attitude

As for Mr. Holbrooke’s concluding sojourn to New Delhi and his interaction with Indian leaders, it leaves much to be desired as before from Pakistani perspective. One area where the Obama Administration seems to have failed to live up to its promises, especially the ones Mr. Obama made during his election campaign, is to persuade the Indian government not to raise the security stakes for Pakistan on its eastern borders, a factor that distracts the latter from focusing duly on its counter-terrorism campaign in the Western frontier with Afghanistan.

Linked to this is another related electoral pledge of Mr. Obama: to appoint a special US envoy to mediate the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, which provides the pretext for jihadi groups to exist in the region and commit cross-border terrorism. Each time Mr Holbrooke comes to Pakistan, he is asked whether he intends to play a mediatory role in Kashmir, and his answer is as usual straightforward: It is an issue for India and Pakistan to resolve bilaterally, and that Washington could act as a facilitator only if India also agrees to such facilitation.

What to speak of Kashmir, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna reportedly snubbed Mr. Holbrooke for asserting that India should be flexible to allow Islamabad to help Washington on the Pak-Afghan frontier. Yet the US envoy stated that India “was a tremendously important participant in the search for peace not only in South Asia but throughout the vast region that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.” Secretary of Defense Gates, who followed Mr. Holbrooke in New Delhi, reinforced the same American mantra of making India a pivotal regional and global player, adding further to Pakistan’s security complex vis-à-vis its regional rival which refuses to talk peace on counts of Islamabad’s failure to take the culprits of Mumbai terrorism to task.

During his trip to India, Mr. Holbrooke also said the United States supported India’s inclusion in the UK-proposed Regional Stability Council over Afghanistan, a proposition Pakistan opposes fiercely, since it amounts to giving its rival country a role in Afghanistan even if it does not share ethnicity or geography with the war-torn country. It was perhaps to counter this Western-backed move that the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran recently met in Islamabad and concluded a wide-ranging regional pact to coordinate their economic, political and security policies with particular reference to the regional terrorist threat emanating from the worsening Afghan war.

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