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How the 'Bulldozer' failed in Pak, Afghanistan

November 28, 2009 12:25 IST

At a recent Track II conference of Indians and Pakistanis, predictions about the fate of Richard Holbrooke, the key interlocutor for US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak, because nothing can be solved in Afghanistan without addressing Pakistan) were dire.

He's losing his job and going home -- after all, he's achieved very little, and he's abrasive and rude, said a former Pakistani minister confidently.

A former bureaucrat was puzzled. He recounted, "On his first visit to Pakistan after he was appointed special representative to President Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan (in January 2009), a lunch was hosted. I met him. He took out a notebook and a pen and asked, 'Who should be President of Pakistan?' It was a strange question, considering Pakistan already had a president."

Between then and now, Holbrooke has lived up to his nickname -- Bulldozer. Some uncharitable comments Holbrooke had made about the Director General of the Inter Services Intelligence Shuja Pasha reached him and Pasha refused to meet Holbrooke. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai reacted with rage to Holbrooke's suggestion in August that his election had been rigged and threw his karakuli sheepskin cap down on the table, ending a meeting rather precipitately.

Yet, this is the same man who brokered a peace deal in Bosnia, negotiating with the 'evil' Milosevic over an 11-hour dinner. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the Dayton Accord. After Bill Clinton appointed Madeleine Albright as secretary of state, a job he had been expecting, Holbrooke joined Credit Suisse First (1996) as vice chairman. But Republicans charged that he had favoured Credit Suisse when he was still a government employee. An official Justice Department investigation was launched. Holbrooke eventually paid a $5,000 settlement, though he denied any wrongdoing. Later, to make up, Clinton nominated him as ambassador to the United Nations.

Why Holbrooke is such an important man for India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US should be obvious. President Obama queered the pitch by mentioning Kashmir twice in two weeks immediately after being elected, and seeing how the wind was blowing, India got Holbrooke out of its hair early on by refusing to accept being put in the company of unstable nations with Islamic insurgencies. So Holbrooke comes to New Delhi, is received politely amid thin smiles, but is not permitted to utter the K word.

For Pakistan, he's been the bearer of bad tidings. Kerry and Lugar did him no service by pressing through Congress a $7.5-billion US Pakistani military aid Bill tripling the money but attaching conditions like Pakistan has to ensure Al Qaeda and  insurgent elements are defeated.

In an official communique, the government of Pakistan said: "The terms set in the Kerry-Lugar Bill on the national security interests of Pakistan are insulting and are unacceptable in their present form." Pakistan officials got the impression that Holbrooke might have been out of the Kerry-Lugar loop.

As for Afghanistan, Karzai wants to see as little of him as possible. While Karzai had the George W Bush administration all wowed, the Obama regime sees his government in bed with a set of corrupt nasties. And yet, it is Karzai who has returned to power, now doubly empowered after an election. Building capacity in Afghanistan so that conditions are created for a withdrawal of foreign troops is all very well, but how do you do it with a sullen regime? There is hardly any doubt that getting Pakistan and Afghanistan back on track is President Obama's biggest challenge -- in fact, the world expects so much from him, it has given him a Nobel Peace Prize in advance.

The man who has to deliver on the ground is Holbrooke. So, will Af-Pak work? The Pakistani prediction is that the US has lost the war. Karzai should have been asked to head a government of national unity. The emphasis should have been to set in place better intelligence sharing between Pakistan and the US, instead of trying to grind Pakistan under the US heel with interventions like the Kerry-Lugar Bill, And the US should have concentrated on getting a six plus three conference for the reconstruction of Afghanistan: the six nations that Afghanistan shares a border with plus India, Russia and the US.

Holbrooke served as a government official in Vietnam. The Obama administration believes with varying degrees of emphasis that Afghanistan is Vietnam: The graveyard of empires. And Pakistanis have a new word for Afghanistan: Vietnamistan.

Aditi Phadnis
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