Holbrooke’s change of tune

Richard Holbrooke, US Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, was in Islamabad on a two-day official visit as a follow-up to the last round of the Pak-US strategic dialogue held in March in Washington. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to visit Pakistan next month. Mr Holbrooke was very forthcoming during his meetings with Prime Minister Gilani and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The US diplomat’s ‘changed’ attitude points to the fact that there is now a realisation in the US that Pakistan has some genuine considerations on pursuing the war on terror and therefore cannot be pushed beyond the point where negative returns start.

We have of course not reached the “end of the road” as Mr Holbrooke said, but we have certainly come a long way. Pakistan is fighting this war for its own survival now. The terrorists have hit us more in recent days, especially after the successful military offensives in South Waziristan and Swat Valley. US pressure for carrying out an operation in North Waziristan right away has of late considerably subsided. This may be because of the Pak-US strategic dialogue where General Kayani made it clear to the US authorities that North Waziristan is a tough nut to crack and without proper logistical support and long-term planning, an operation in the restive territory could backfire. The army may have cleared South Waziristan and Swat Valley for the time being but unless an effective administrative apparatus is in place, the threat of a resurgence of militancy cannot be ruled out. The army is trying to keep the areas peaceful as far as possible till the time that such a system is installed. Until then, launching an operation in North Waziristan may be risky. On the issue of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar hiding somewhere on the Pak-Afghan border, Mr Holbrooke maintained that he did not hold any Pakistani state officials responsible for this. Unlike Ms Clinton, who said she believed that “somewhere in this (Pakistan) government are people who know” where the two were, Mr Holbrooke’s views were more reasonable. That said, it can be argued that Ms Clinton’s statement had more to do with the anger in the US over the Faisal Shahzad episode. She seemed to be playing more to her domestic audience, but Pakistan taking offence to it made the Obama administration more cautious and in damage control mode. The chances of keeping the Pak-US relationship smooth and moving it in a positive direction have been improved by the Americans now taking a more rational approach.

Mr Holbrooke’s initial reaction to the Iran-Pakistan pipeline was pleasantly positive but the next day his tone was more of the same old song that the US has adopted vis-à-vis Iran. “Pakistan is an independent country and it is Pakistan’s own decision on the project” was what he said at first. Later he cautioned Pakistan “not to over-commit” because “legislation is being prepared that may apply to the project”. The US may be sympathetic to our energy needs but it must keep in mind that this is a grave crisis and unless and until we take care of it right away, Pakistan will be in dire straits. If the US comes down hard on this issue, it will only lead to more tensions and will play into the hands of our common enemy, the terrorists.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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