Sunday, February 8, 2009

Preview of Holbrooke 's Mission in Pakistan

As Richard C. Holbrooke arrives as US Special Envoy in Pakistan tomorrow, there are a lot of questions and speculations as to the man, his agenda, strategy and tactics in developing and implementing a new policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having been a career diplomat and Clinton adviser, Holbrooke is not an unknown entity. Given Holbrooke's tough-as-nails reputation, Indians were very concerned about having him explicitly address Kashmir as part of his portfolio. India, therefore, lobbied and managed to "prune the portfolio of the Obama administration's top envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke -- basically eliminating the contested region of Kashmir from his job description", according to Washington Post.

Holbrooke is nicknamed "the Bulldozer" for arm-twisting warring leaders to the negotiating table as he hammered out the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia, a peace that has stuck. The Indians are quite happy to see this "Bulldozer" riding roughshod over Pakistan.

According to Jewish News, Richard Holbrooke is proud of his Jewish heritage. He only spent a year as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, but he tried to make sure that his hosts would not forget he is a son of German Jews. Visitors to Holbrooke's official residence were greeted by an ambassador who proudly displayed a photo of his grandfather, a Jewish businessman, in his World War I Germany army uniform. "I show it to German visitors as a symbol of what they lost," Holbrooke told The New York Times in a 1994 interview.

To help readers get insights into Holbrooke's thinking as a diplomat, here is an Op Ed piece he wrote for the Washington Post last March:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Pakistan has had a such run of bad news in recent years that it may seem delusional to describe the current mood here as hopeful. Yet that is the impression this country -- often called by the American media the most dangerous on Earth -- is offering a visitor.

The main reason for the new mood is the return of a vibrant democratic process and what is widely believed to be the end of a decade of military rule. Less than two months after Benazir Bhutto's murder, her Pakistan People's Party and the party of her chief rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, swept parliamentary elections that were widely accepted as honest. They have formed a Pakistani version of a grand coalition, with Bhutto's PPP on top.

The victory of these parties -- broadly based political organizations with widespread popular appeal -- is only half the story. The other half is equally important: The military seems to have pulled out of the political arena, at least temporarily, after President Pervez Musharraf's party won less than 20 percent of the seats in the newly elected National Assembly. Since Musharraf's real power base was as military commander, when he "took off his uniform" last year, it turned out that his residual power as president was largely ceremonial -- "like the queen of England," as one enthusiastic new parliamentarian put it. The new military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, has said emphatically that the military should stay out of politics. In a country where the military has stepped into the political process with unfortunate regularity since the birth of the nation in 1947, this could be the biggest news of all -- if Kiyani and his colleagues mean it. The military has a central role to play in Pakistan's security, but not in the political arena.

Another positive straw in the wind is the poor showing of the overtly religious parties in February's elections -- they got only 4 percent of the total vote. In the volatile tribal areas near the Afghan border, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have had a sanctuary from NATO operations in Afghanistan, the Muslim parties were shut out.

This does not mean, of course, that the border region is free of terrorists; sheltered deep in the valleys and villages of western Pakistan, they pose a serious threat to American and NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan. Dealing with them will require a massive program of security and development that goes far beyond the current plan, which is about $150 million in U.S. assistance per year. After visiting the border areas this week, I believe that the place to start is with a vastly improved, better-equipped, better-trained and better-paid Frontier Corps. This ancient force, created by the British in the 19th century, has only 50,000 troops; incredibly, it faces a better-armed Taliban and local rebel groups. Put another way, the eastern front of the American war in Afghanistan is surely worth more than $150 million a year -- money that, I should note, has not yet arrived in any significant amount.

Huge mistakes were made by the Musharraf regime in the tribal areas. Even Musharraf admits that his government's 2006 peace deal with the Taliban was a disaster that gave the Taliban a huge advantage in the Pakistani tribal areas and greatly weakened the NATO effort in Afghanistan. (Inexplicably, the United States publicly endorsed the deal, perhaps as part of its generally pro-Musharraf policies.)

But it seems a large overstatement to see the militants in the tribal areas as a threat to the rest of Pakistan. Pakistan's problems -- including terrorism -- are monumental, and its future is uncertain. (A bright spot in recent years has been a quietly improving relationship with India.) But Pakistan, the world's second-largest Muslim nation, is too big and its civil society -- with its deeply established political parties, its free press, its vibrant and very visible lawyers, its thousands of nongovernmental organizations, its huge business community, and its own moderate Muslim leaders -- too extensive to in fact become "the world's most dangerous nation."

For their part, educated Pakistanis are following the American presidential campaign carefully. Whoever is elected, they will continue to pay close attention to Washington. (An example: Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower and co-chairman of the PPP, told me that in choosing a woman to be speaker of the National Assembly, he was deeply influenced by his wife's friendship with Nancy Pelosi.)

Over decades, Washington has usually sent mixed signals to Pakistan. This time the message should be clear and consistent: democracy, reconciliation, the military out of politics, a new policy for the tribal areas -- and more democracy.

Here is a video clip about Holbrooke's appointment:

Related Links:

Pakistan's Prospects

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Obama's South Asia Policy

Military Occupation of Kashmir

Bruce Riedel Interview

Clues to Obama's South Asia Policy


Anonymous said...

Holbrooks mission is tough as he has to deal with rabid insane mullahs along with idiotic president of my country.I pray the world to save my sinking country from chaos.It is of vital importance for USA to understand that Pakistan route to suicide as a nation is irreversible if they do not deal with taliban and its sympathisers in its society.In a country which is run by three different centres of power-he needs to understand which centre he is talking to.While he may feel good on establishing democracy-it is a feel good factor for US not for a common pakistani.If Obama fails-the days of my country are numbered -such is the devastating impact of misusing religion for binding society.It is a real test of sincerity of various actors involved.

Riaz Haq said...


While I agree with your concerns, I remain optimistic about Pakistan's future. My optimism is based on a Pakistan's well-educated and rising middle class that is beginning to assert itself in politics while at the same time contributing to its economy. Please read my post captioned "Jinnah's Pakistan Booms Amidst Doom and Gloom" at

On the question of religious identity, the US, along with Pakistan's military and clergy, deepened Pakistanis' religious identity as Muslims and promoted violent Jihad as a hedge against Communism. Not just in Pakistan, but in other Muslim nations as well. We are all reaping the bitter harvest of that effort undertaken decades ago.

In case of Pakistan, there must be a new glue to bind the nation together, if their religious identity is to be de-emphasized.

Anonymous said...

"If Obama fails-the days of my country are numbered -such is the devastating impact of misusing religion for binding society.It is a real test of sincerity of various actors involved."

I don't think you should be so dependent on any other country for your existence. And nobody needs to. International relationships are solely based on profit. Right now, I don't think Pakistan is in a position to expect anything good from US, as it has no gains by doing so. You should try to get a government which at least understands the basics of transparent governance. Then your middle class will be able to contribute to your development. Once this is achieved, you should not be dependent on any other country. I am not saying its easy. You never had such a government since your genesis.

Riaz Haq said...

Comment received via email:

Here is something you might love.

A bully was breaking his shoe on another man's face in the shopping mall's atrium, and the man who was getting the footprints on both cheeks kept laughing. Couple of women stopped by and said to the beaten man, "this bully is skinning your face with his shoes and you keep on laughing but do nothing about it? What is the problem with you?"

The beat man laughed some more, then took a breather and said, "this bully is so stupid. He thinks he is beating up his arch enemy. This idiot does not know that I am not even the person he thinks I am."

This is how Pakistani government behaves when it comes to the Americans. Holbrooke or Negroponte's names are only inconsequential, non-sequitur shit.


Anonymous said...

Another comment received via email:

On the statement by Holbrooke "The military has a central role to play in Pakistan's security, but not in the political arena."

In every country, more so in the US, the military and the political government work closely towards achieving the national objectives. Politicians after coming into power review their strategy generally going closer to the military viewpoint. Foreign policy is almost always very closely coordinated between the two.

Why then Pakistanis have started believing that Army and the political government are two opposing camps, and one should be subservient to the other. The reasons seem to be:

a) Lack of a common objective. In order for the military and politicians to cooperate, there has to be a higher common objective, generally national interest. However, in Pakistan's case the preservation of the country comes before that. Pakistan First is very appropriate as the objective; unfortunately in the anti-Musharraf wave, this statement of objective has also been negated. of its , before this national interest part comes into play, its continued
in their simple mindedness On this self destructive path, external forces cannot help and the change has to come within.

Unknown said...

On Shams's comment: Besides the Pakistan government, this is also true for all those Pakistanis propagating conspiracy theories to "educate" American of the "real causes" of their problems

On Riaz's optimism part: One encouraging thing to have happened over the last year is that a working relationship seems to be developing between the Army and the PPP. If the government completes its tenure of five years, it will go a long way in stabilizing the country. However, to do that the PPP leadership needs to bring in a certain minimum level of professionalism in governance; running the fifth largest country in the world is no joke.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a story by Jane Perlez in today's NY Times about Holbrooke's visit:

He had come to listen, not to lecture, Mr. Holbrooke said. What he heard was a familiar list of requests for more money and arms from Pakistan’s top leadership, as well as a litany of complaints about American airstrikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas using Predator drones.

Mr. Holbrooke’s trip to Pakistan, and his four-day tour of Afghanistan, which is scheduled to begin Thursday, was part of a top-to-bottom review of American policy in the region ordered by President Obama.

The challenge for the new administration is how to persuade a Pakistani military fixated on its archenemy India to reorient its troops to fight the Qaeda and Taliban insurgency that is engulfing the country.

Washington also wants to convince the poorly organized and almost bankrupt civilian government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, that it must support the military in its counterinsurgency efforts by providing proper governance and development.

As part of his tour in the capital, Islamabad, Mr. Holbrooke met with Mr. Zardari; the military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani; and the head of Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

Officials familiar with the conversations say Mr. Holbrooke was faced with universal opposition to the Predator strikes, which American officials say have helped disrupt the Qaeda network.

The Pakistanis insist that the drone strikes have killed civilians, further turned public feeling against the United States, and represent an infringement of their sovereignty.

What, if anything, the Obama administration plans to do about the protests over the missile attacks was not clear, officials said.

A retired Pakistani general, Talat Masood, who attended a dinner in honor of Mr. Holbrooke at the American Embassy on Tuesday night, said he got the impression that there may be some effort by the Americans to make the drone strikes more palatable by conducting them as a joint operation.

The foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, called the attacks “counterproductive” and said that Pakistan and the United States would form a joint team of officials to review policy differences, including the missile attacks.

As well as voice opposition to the missile strikes, General Kayani asked for more equipment for the army’s counterinsurgency efforts, which the Pakistanis have long asserted they have been denied by Washington. “We are crying hoarsely,” General Kayani’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said of the request that was made to Mr. Holbrooke.

Mr. Zardari, who is presiding over a crumbling economy on life support from the International Monetary Fund, made a major pitch for immediate American economic assistance, officials said.

On Wednesday morning, Mr. Holbrooke flew in a helicopter over the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where supplies for American and NATO troops in Afghanistan have come under attack from militants in recent months.

He was then flown over the Bajaur and Mohmand areas of the tribal belt, where the Pakistani Army is fighting the Taliban.

He landed at Ghalanai, the small town that serves as the capital of Mohmand, and heard from the government’s chief representative, Amjad Ali Khan, how the civilian authorities were using the persuasion of local tribes to bring young men who had joined the Taliban back into the fold.

But as the government was showing Mr. Holbrooke its best efforts against the insurgents, a car bomb killed a popular provincial legislator in Peshawar, the chaotic capital of the North-West Frontier Province. The politician, Alam Zeb Khan, was driving to inspect a development project in the city, his supporters said, when a remote-controlled bomb blew up his car.

For a sense of how the insurgency is affecting people, Mr. Holbrooke met in Peshawar with a group of women from nongovernment organizations.

A young woman who lived in Swat, an area where the army has virtually lost control to the Taliban, told Mr. Holbrooke how the Taliban had killed her husband. The women of Swat, she told him, were confined to their houses, were not allowed to go shopping, and lived in fear of the Taliban, who spread their message through FM radio.

Though Mr. Holbrooke was accompanied by the deputy commander of the United States Central Command, Maj. General John R. Allen, the high-profile visit by a civilian envoy could change the tone of the conversation with Pakistan, said Ahmed Rashid, the author of a recent book on Pakistan and Afghanistan, called “Descent into Chaos,” who attended the dinner with Mr. Holbrooke in the old town in Lahore.

“This is a complete sea change in what Pakistan is used to,” said Mr. Rashid, who was invited to Washington just before the inauguration to attend a small foreign policy dinner with Mr. Obama.

“There is a suspicion in the American establishment that the Pakistani Army has found it easier to pull the wool over the eyes of the American military. It will be harder to do that with the civilians.”

On Thursday, before leaving for Afghanistan, Mr. Holbrooke is scheduled to meet Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N who served as prime minister twice in the 1990s.

Mr. Sharif holds some sympathies with the Islamic parties, and, as a rival of Mr. Zardari’s, he is considered an important figure for the Americans because he would like to maneuver his way to power in the coming year.