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New U.S. Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Faces Complex Regional Challenges


U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has undertaken his first trip to South Asia as President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The trip is labeled an “orientation,” as the Obama administration begins a top-to-bottom review of American policy in the region.

Holbrooke’s tour began in Pakistan, where he discussed U.S. desires to have Pakistan assume a larger role in fighting the al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgency engulfing the country. For Pakistani leaders, it was their chance to renew their oft-repeated requests to the United States for money and arms.

From Pakistan, Ambassador Holbrooke moved on to Afghanistan, where he arrived Thursday in Kabul under tight security. The day before the Afghan capital was the scene of deadly attacks by the Taliban that left at least 26 people dead.

Before returning to the United States, Ambassador Holbrooke is also scheduled to stop in India, where he will meet with officials on matters related to security in the region.

An American Perspective

President Barack Obama named veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan shortly after his inauguration last month. A veteran diplomat, Ambassador Holbrooke achieved prominence when he brokered a peace agreement among the warring factions in Bosnia that led to the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995.

Roy Gutman, the foreign editor of the McClatchy newspaper chain in the United States, has wide experience in both the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and he has written books on both regions. He calls President Obama’s appointment of Ambassador Holbrooke a “very smart idea,” saying “it is absolutely crucial for the United States to develop a strategy for the region as a whole.”

Gutman appeared as a guest this week on VOA’s English-language radio program International Press Club. He told the program’s host, Judith Latham, that the new Obama administration’s approach to a very complex set of problems in the region was never tried during the Bush administration. “In fact,” Gutman says, “there’s been an absence of real attention to getting the policy right, to figuring out a set of goals that are achievable and a strategy to achieve them, and then a person who could actually oversee them.”

During the 1990s, after Soviet troops had been forced out of Afghanistan, Gutman says Washington largely closed its eyes to what was going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The U.S. Congress cut off all aid, and the Clinton administration decided it was going to look the other way in the aftermath of the set of wars in Afghanistan, some of which we actually participated in to force the Russian to get out.” “As a result,” Gutman says, “you had the setting up by Osama bin Laden of his al-Qaida network in Afghanistan, but the problem is that we displaced them into Pakistan.” What happened then, he says, is the United States actually played a role in moving the insurgency into Pakistani tribal areas that are inaccessible to Western forces, creating sanctuaries for people who “not only want to force the United States and NATO to pull [their] forces out, but they would also like to topple the government of Pakistan.” The result, says Gutman, is an increased potential for instability.

“The failure of the Bush administration was that it viewed Afghanistan essentially as a platform for military operations into Pakistan,” says Gutman. “Holbrooke needs to pursue a diplomatic effort first and foremost. You’ve got to have one person who can fit the pieces together and propose a strategy and then carry out that strategy by whatever tactical means are needed.”


A Pakistani Perspective

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in Lahore says Washington and Islamabad do not share the same order of priorities for the region, but that Holbrooke’s visit has given him an understanding of the Pakistani point of view. “ First, Pakistan is in desperate need of money,” says Rashid, “and Washington has said a new foreign aid package will be put through Congress.” And while there is growing concern in Pakistan about the matter of the safe havens for insurgents – a primary concern for the United States - Pakistanis have a larger concern about the long-term dispute with India over Kashmir. Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir, and Rashid says Pakistan is determined to continue talks with India, especially after new tensions were created in the aftermath of the recent massacre in Mumbai that was staged by Pakistani-based terrorists.

An Indian Perspective

Jehangir Pocha, the editor of INX News in New Delhi, says Indians see the problems of the region very differently. “There’s a sense that people need to get tough with Pakistan, and there’s a feeling Obama is doing the right thing in doing so,” says Pocha. He notes that 80 % of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan go through Pakistan.


Pocha says Indians believe Afghanistan deserves more attention from Washington and that Afghan problems got sidelined during the Iraq war. There should not be “just a military answer to settling Afghanistan,” he says. “The goal of creating a multiparty democracy may not work in Afghanistan overnight because, the fact is, Afghanistan is in many ways an ungovernable nation in the modern sense of a nation state.” Pocha says most Indians see an interest in making sure Afghanistan does not become a “failed state” that continues as a source of instability in the region.

Points of Agreement

All the journalists believe that, although the challenges facing America’s new envoy to the region are immense, Richard Holbrooke is well-qualified for the job. However, Roy Gutman cautions that, in the former Yugoslavia, it took a few years for him to “get on top of things.” Gutman says Yugoslavia was a “hugely complex issue, and I’m not sure Ambassador Holbrooke has as yet taken the measure of the complexity of the issues in South Asia. It will take time.”

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