200905.14
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Why Holbrooke must avoid the ‘I’ word?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

During his election campaign, the new US President promised to place Afghanistan at the top of US his government’s foreign policy agenda. After becoming President, Barack Obama showed commitment to his promise by appointing one of the most accomplished Americans as his special envoy for addressing the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Richard Holbrooke is not known for accepting defeat. He has succeeded in virtually every thing to which he has set his hands.

Men of Holbrooke’s stature can be divided into two broad categories. Those handicapped by straightjackets of ideology, preconceived notions and inflexibility. President Bush and Dick Cheney fit into this category who were determined to see the world and facts in the certain preconceived way. On the other hand are realistic people who are willing to throw away any module, any belief or any standpoint if not doing so would reduce the possibility of achievement of the target that they are seeking to achieve. Given Mr. Holbrooke’s unmatched track record of problem solving and dispute resolution, it is obvious that he belongs to the latter category.

But given his remarkable track record, it is surprising how Mr. Holbrooke has allowed himself the liberty of not taking into account local realities, perceptions and sensitivities before devising his approach to achieve his stated targets of building trust with Pakistani people, politicians and its Armed forces in the hope of working out a joint US-Pakistan plan to deal with the threat being posed by terrorists both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unless Mr. Holbrooke accepts the objective reality that India has no role to play in the achievement of his mission, it may not be possible for him to achieve his agenda.

On the other hand, people of Pakistan, both in and outside government, also need to realize the opportunity that they have in the person of Mr. Holbrooke. From playing a key role in the signing of Dayton Peace Accords and saving lives of millions of Bosnian and Kosovo Muslims, to successfully negotiating a historic deal between the United States and all 188-Member States of United Nations to settle arrears of money owed by US government to UN, a feat in recognition of which the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave him a standing ovation, Holbrooke has succeeded at everything he has set his hand to. In fact, there is no one in the world today with a superior track record of problem solving, dispute resolution and a better know-how of how ‘To End A War’ than Mr. Holbrooke. We in Pakistan should see him as an opportunity, an ally who needs to be given space to reassess the situation and to realign his approach towards building trust with Pakistani government and military establishment.

It is in the above spirit that I have taken the liberty of pointing out below certain serious shortcomings in Mr. Holbrooke’s approach, which if not addressed immediately, may render it impossible for him to succeed in his mission. It is in the interest of all of us that Holbrooke should succeed, because if he does not, it would perhaps be the first spoiler in his admirable profile of achievements, but quite fatal for all those people who wish peace in this country and region.


  1. Mr. Holbrooke refuses to even mention Kashmir issue. His excuse is that his mandate is only for Afghanistan and Pakistan and that he is always afraid of using the ‘k’ word. Firstly, if he is so particular about his mandate, how can he, on behalf USA, declare India as the leader of South Asia but be afraid of even mentioning the ‘k’ word. Secondly, who is he afraid of when mentioning Kashmir? Surely, it can not be Pakistan. So it is obviously India that is scaring Mr. Holbrooke. But if this is the case then, if Mr. Holbrooke wants to build trust with Pakistanis, why can he not simply come clean about it by publicly saying that ‘look I appreciate your concern about the Kashmir issue but first, it is not within my mandate and, two, India is too sensitive about it’. By just smilingly brushing aside the subject and saying ‘I am too scared to even mention the ‘k’ word’ is no way to win trust of Pakistanis. Apart from Mr. Holbrooke, what about Obama administration? While one can appreciate US keenness to court India as an emerging economic power, is the US administration so scared of Indian reaction that even the routine expressions of hope that both countries would found a way to resolve Kashmir issue are now avoided.
  2. Mr. Holbrooke wants political government and military establishment of Pakistan to trust and work with him on addressing the biggest internal threat that has ever been faced by Pakistan. But at the same time, he wants to keep reporting to India about each development on the pretext that Pakistan’s neighbors need to be kept fully informed about what Pakistan is doing to meet that threat. Iran is also a neighbor. Why does Mr. Holbrook not include Iran too in his updating service? Is he too naïve not to realise that Pakistan and India are arch enemies who have fought three wars? In a real world, perceptions are more important than reality. Mr. Holbrooke is too intelligent not to realize that, right or wrong, this particular approach cannot work.
  3. Mr. Holbrooke himself claims that India has spent one billion dollars in Afghanistan. Instead of appreciating it, Mr. Holbrooke should honestly ask himself if this level of spending is for charitable reasons only? Are there no more poor people in India who may be more entitled to Indian compassion? And is there any other country in the whole world that has received as much attention and money from India? What about Bhutan, Burma and Bangladesh? Is it difficult for Mr. Holbrooke to accept that the reason for so much spending on the other side of what India perceives to be its number one enemy cannot be bona fide? But bona fide or not, is it also difficult to accept that Indian influence and spending in Afghanistan is bound to be pressing wrong buttons in the mindset of Pakistani establishment by provoking fear of encirclement here? Compared with Pakistan, US is far more powerful state and still, how was Soviet spending and influence in Cuba perceived in USA? And why is India complaining about Chinese support to Sri Lankan existing government and its spending there?

The fact is that against the bitter history of Indo-Pak relations, the psyche here is understandably that of ‘paranoia of encirclement’. It would be helpful if US government started to see Pakistani Army’s action – or lack of it – against Taliban, who may be enjoying the benefit of being perceived by Pakistani establishment as ‘the-sole-enemy-of-our-enemy-in-Afghanistan’, in the light of its India-related experience and perception.

It is thus that if USA aims or expects to make any joint headway on Afghanistan and Pakistan, it must first take on board the fact that from Pakistan’s standpoint, India is its sole enemy that manipulated social unrest in East Pakistan to dismember Pakistan and to humiliate its Army and that till her death, Indra Gandhi took pride in having engineered the dismemberment of Pakistan. India has wanted Pakistan to fail right from the day of its creation. This is an objective truth that is supported by historical events, facts and evidence.

But if, for a moment, we assume that USA does not agree with the above view point of Pakistan, even then in order to expect any progress with Pakistan, USA must pay due regard at least to Pakistan’s this ‘perception’, no matter how misplaced it may be.

Both President Obama and Mr. Holbrooke claim to be pragmatists, not idealists. In the world of pragmatism, perceptions and fears, no matter how misplaced they may be, play a vital role in achievement of objects and targets. If Indian sensitivities have made Mr. Holbrooke forget the ‘k’ word, if for nothing else then just to be able to achieve his targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Holbrooke will need to forget the ‘i’ word as well.

In order to remove any doubts about the issue in hand, let me caution Mr. Holbrooke that so long as Indian influence and Indian money remains in Afghanistan, he would not be able to get Pakistan to really focus on Taliban problem and his expectation that he would be able to devise and implement US-Pak joint plan to deal with Taliban would remain nothing but an illusion. Right or wrong, this is an objective reality and the sooner Mr. Holbrooke and Obama administration appreciate and accept this reality and get India out of Afghanistan, the better it would be for Afghanistan, Pakistan and USA. Whether Holbrooke succeeds in his mission or not also crucially depends on his willingness to accept and include in his approach Pakistani establishment’s fear of Indian encirclement as an objective reality that needs to be addressed before expecting from Pakistan any trust, cooperation and progress on the US agenda that President Obama has announced and that Mr. Holbrooke is pursuing.