Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Holbrooke Visit: Reviewing the Messy Inheritance

26 Feb, 2009    ·   2817

Salma Malik says the US has a long way to go before it can retrieve the situation in the region

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s newly-appointed special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, faces an uphill task. He is expected to implement an integrated strategy in the US policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan. These steps are seen as a new engagement in global affairs by the Obama administration, a marked departure from the policy of former president George W Bush. Holbrooke was candid and precise when he recently commented in Munich that he had “never seen anything like the mess we have inherited.” Will he succeed in his task?

Unfortunately, most of this mess has been America’s creation. While this certainly does not absolve the countries in question from complicity, the US has to realize that its policies of external engagements, regime change, and its eight year-long global war on terror requires a major policy review, besides a change in strategy to deal with allied states. 

With a change of administration, the US has undergone a major policy shift. In order to prevent a repeat of Vietnam, the administration has announced a phased withdrawal from Iraq, is re-evaluating its strategy in Afghanistan and is extremely conscious of the increasing global anti-American sentiment due to its past policies. However, its military engagement in Afghanistan, an issue already worrisome for the Afghan government, will continue with an increase in troop deployment. Years of Allied presence have failed to establish the Karzai government’s legitimacy and control beyond Kabul and the security situation in Afghanistan remains unsustainable. In fact, relations between the Karzai government and its one time supporters in the US administration have soured. 

For Pakistan the spill-over effect of the war on terror, and a history of troubled alliance relations, makes both the public as well as the civil-military administration wary of American intentions. However, in spite of reservations, the new overtures have been greatly welcomed, especially Obama’s stance regarding the need to tackle Kashmir as it is the most important issue in South Asia. It is highly unfortunate that the security managers in New Delhi, once again, successfully de-linked Kashmir from the larger picture. Indian National Security Adviser MK Narayanan’s statement that the US would be barking up the wrong tree, and then lobbying hard to get India excluded from the proposed regional approach to solve the problems affecting the two neighbours, serves no purpose. If the idea was to prevent internationalising the Kashmir issue and opening doors to third party intervention, then it is imperative to mention that nearly all peace overtures in the region have been successful only through third party facilitation. Ironically, whenever it suits the parties concerned, issues, even as intractable as Kashmir, have been internationalised to garner favourable support. Moreover, if India does not want to be party to any US-backed regional framework, then seeking Holbrooke’s attention to discuss alleged Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is not appropriate. 

Regional security dynamics over the years have become so complex and integrated that countries of the region must get together and iron out difficulties. Resolution of the Kashmir dispute is very important and is not merely a question of whether it suits Islamabad or New Delhi, but one of a better future of the region. Interestingly, Holbrooke is not mandated to discuss Kashmir, nor will former President Bill Clinton be coming to the region as a special envoy. In this regard, British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband’s views that settling Kashmir would mean one less war zone and sanctuary for extremist elements is pertinent. However, the centre of the storm is the war on terror and Pakistan is ground zero, both as an affectee and alleged perpetrator. 

Holbrooke’s maiden visit to the troubled region became all the more dramatic with the imposition of Sharia in Swat. Though Holbrooke was welcomed in Pakistan, issues of increased drone attacks and the negative fallout of the war effort being borne by Pakistan remain alive. The demands from the US stand; greater effort in the war, but a shift in strategy towards more appeasement for its disgruntled ally. Adding to the complexity are questions surrounding Afghanistan; the US would like to see the borders drawn by the British made permanent and swifter action to tackle increased warlordism and drug trafficking. Holbrooke’s recently-concluded trip was a mere initiation into the troubles of the region. The conclusions he will draw will not only set the tone of the US administration’s strategy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also affect the future course of US security policy.