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Bulldozer diplomacy

By Imtiaz Gul

Daily DAWN April 20, 2009

President Asif Ali Zardari, right, meets US Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke in Islamabad. — AP

Ever since his appointment as the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in January, Richard Holbrooke has harped on a tune that is sweet music to scores of ears inside and outside Pakistan.

If the tribal areas of western Pakistan were not a sanctuary, I believe that Afghanistan could take care of itself within a relatively short period of time.’

The terrorists who threaten America are in Pakistan, but the US fights the Afghan Taliban, who don’t. Afghanistan’s stability is related with Pakistan’s situation. ‘If Afghanistan had the best government on earth, a drug-free culture and no corruption, it would still be unstable if the situation in Pakistan remained as today.’

This categorisation of Pakistan’s centrality in the questionable war on terror bears the typical hallmarks of Richard Holbrooke, who carries the reputation of being an arrogant and tough negotiator. His presence also raises many questions for the future of Pakistan-US relations. Will he steer this relationship out of the woods with Pakistan’s legitimate concerns and problems in mind, or will he remain focused on the ‘deliver and do more mantra’ only?

In fact, several days before President Obama’s March 27 ‘AfPak policy announcement,’ Holbrooke took it upon himself to drop the broad contours of the new approach. During a Nato security conference at Brussels around March 20, the special envoy began mentioning Quetta, Balochistan and Baitullah Mehsud as prime concerns for the United States. During a string of interviews with BBC, Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor, he came down hard on the ISI and the Pakistan military for their ‘nexus with militants’ operating across the 2,560 km Durand Line.

Following on former secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s assertion that Pakistan was an ‘international migraine’, both Holbrooke and Defence Secretary Robert Gates unleashed a campaign that clearly ostracised Pakistan’s security establishment. The Holbrooke style of diplomacy perhaps merits a detailed study to understand the person and to conjecture the possible fallout.

While analysing Holbrooke, the Wall Street Journal quoted Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton, as saying ‘Holbrooke is the diplomatic equivalent of a hydrogen bomb’. The same article said, ‘Obama and (Hillary) Clinton chose Holbrooke because of his ability to twist arms as well as hold hands, work closely with the military and improvise inventive solutions to what others write off as insoluble problems. But no one yet knows how his often pyrotechnical style — he whispers, but also pesters, bluffs, threatens, stages fits and publicises — will work in an administration that prizes low-key competence or in a region that is dangerously unstable.’

Also known as ‘the Bulldozer’ for his hard-hitting style of conducting diplomacy, Holbrooke termed the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan as ‘extraordinarily dysfunctional’. He first visited the region in early February 2009 to ‘vacuum up’ the maximum amount of information about the region, players, situation, governments and the alternative power players.

Former American general Wesley C. Clark noted that Holbrooke saw power ‘as an artist sees colour’; suggesting that he knew how much of it should be used and where in the art of arm-twisting diplomacy. America’s new ambassador to Iraq and a long time colleague of Holbrooke, Christopher Hill, called him a ‘larger than life’ figure because the problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan itself was ‘larger than life’. His persistence to remain non-committal on Pakistan’s concerns about the CIA, the use of drones to target Pakistanis in talks with Pakistan’s foreign ministry officials recently also depicts his personality.

The Bulldozer’ reportedly received a shock when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi spoke of a ‘big gap’ in perceptions about the drone attacks on April 7. Pakistani military and some civilian leaders also rejected Holbrooke’s proposal of joint military operations on Pakistani soil. For the first time since the launch of the questionable war on terror, the Pakistani leadership took a united position over the mounting criticism of the Pakistan Army and its affiliated institutions.

Holbrooke rubbed more salt into Pakistani egos when he snubbed a question on Kashmir. ‘I have come here to discuss the challenge of extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, nothing else,’ Holbrooke responded stubbornly.
He displays little understanding for the concerns than many in Pakistan have regarding India and its role in Afghanistan and expects unquestioned cooperation from Islamabad, without realising that several of his predecessors and US intellectuals have been urging the Obama administration to help neutralise Pakistani apprehensions regarding the Indian role in Afghanistan as well as the offensive posture of the Indian forces on the eastern border.

People like Peter Tomson, ex-US envoy to the anti-Taliban forces, James Dobbins, ex-special envoy to Afghanistan, and Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation have touched on this issue on several occasions. Dobbins highlighted Pakistani’s ‘legitimate interests in Afghanistan’ before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2007, while Lisa Curtis spoke more or less along the same lines before a congressional committee on the Middle East and South Asia.

That future aid to Pakistan has been linked to the US access to the nuclear network in Pakistan, and to ‘denying support to anti-India groups’ clearly underscore how Holbrooke and Bruce Riedel have come together to spin a cobweb of conditions around Pakistan to force it into compliance rather than cooperate of its free will.

Holbrooke, on the other hand, appears given only to the American-India concerns on the consequences arising out of the wave of terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This obviously kicks up a fundamental question: can the US expect effective cooperation by totally disregarding Pakistan’s legitimate concerns, glossing over its geo-strategic interests and playing up themes that originate in India?

The answer came from former US national security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in an interview with a Pakistani private TV channel. He said the US was unable to find an answer to the question on obtaining Pakistan’s help while Pakistan was sure it faced a threat from India. He most probably suggested that the US cannot win Pakistan over as long as it talks of it as an ally and at the same time targets its institutions. No doubt, the Pakistan-US relationship is once again on a bumpy and troublesome path.


(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk