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Saturday, 21 February 2009

Mr. Holbrooke, you got it right. Pakistan's No. 1 challenge is to control its rogue army, particularly the ISI-Taliban alliance...

Internal divisions?
Saturday, February 21, 2009

In his first detailed comment on the situation in Pakistan after his recent fact-finding and get-to-know mission, Special Envoy of President Obama, Richard Holbrooke has revealed more than anyone in Pakistan could have expected. His statement, if indeed what he is saying is correct, suggests divisions between the political leadership and the Pakistani military on the issue of fighting militancy in the country. Clearly, America is not sure whether the Pakistani military and its premier intelligence agency, the ISI, are fully behind President Asif Ali Zardari's commitment and strategy to eradicate Taliban sanctuaries in NWFP and FATA. Other than the more immediate issue of tackling terrorism and extremism head on, this matter also has a much wider ramification. Given Pakistan's chequered history and several instances of military interventions at the expense of elected governments, it suggests a potentially troubling situation.

What Ambassador Holbrooke has said in public is unusual in that normally such matters are not revealed to public when they relate to relations between two institutions of a foreign nation, and most certainly not when that nation happens to be a key ally. The point here is that, Mr Holbrooke's remarks are intriguing as they are but the manner and forum on which they have been made are also significant. The ambassador also ended up commenting on the law and order situation in Pakistan, saying that people could not walk their dogs in public and that people avoided driving from Peshawar to Islamabad. While this may seem to some Pakistanis a bit of an exaggeration, the first one, pertaining to a possible division between two major power centres in the country, may to some extent confirm what some sceptics may have been noticing for the past few months. The manner in which the Swat deal was agreed upon and how the presidency afterwards seemed reluctant in endorsing it only add weight to the scepticism.

It is possible that during his recent visit to the country, Ambassador Holbrooke found substance to substantiate what he is now saying in public – also something that no political or military spokesman would ever admit to within Pakistan. The fact that he went public with his assessment of the situation may perhaps suggest that private mediatory diplomacy may not have succeeded in bridging the gaps. This explains Holbrooke's emphasis in his statement that the upcoming visit of Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to Washington will be used to seriously pursue this issue, meaning that some blunt talking may be done on whether the Pakistani Army and the political setup can come to an agreed strategy, presumably as dictated by Washington. Having said that, America or no America, the compulsions of an elected democracy demand that the military be at the beck and call of the elected leadership and that it take its orders from the elected government – and not the other way round.

In this background, in which the US has publicly conceded that it was "troubled and confused" about the Swat deal, and until the cloud of uncertainty is removed, Islamabad should brace itself for the worst. This means possible delays in the billions that Pakistan urgently needs for economic revival, perhaps till such time that Washington and Islamabad sort out the policy that the latter will need to follow on dealing with the Taliban and combating terrorism. Again, in this regard, America or no America, a point that needs to be made is that fighting the Taliban and militants in general is something that needn't be dictated by America because it is very much in Pakistan's own interests. Yesterday it was Waziristan – today it is Swat – next it could be Islamabad? As a consequence of the US envoy's remarks, the fate of the Swat deal may hang in the balance – because clearly American support and funding may be hard to get if the deal remains. (The News)

US-Pak perceptions of anti-terror war should not differ

The US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr Richard Holbrooke, has told a meeting in Washington that the “militants involved in 9/11, the Mumbai attacks and unrest in Swat have common roots” and that “the US was troubled and confused about the development in the Swat valley”. Some other reports appearing in the press on Friday implied that Mr Holbrooke was “not sure if the Pakistan military and the ISI backed President Zardari’s commitment to eradicate terrorist sanctuaries from the NWFP”.

In Pakistan, most TV channels have expressed anger at the American reaction of scepticism over the latest accord reached between the TNSM’s Sufi Muhammad and the NWFP government, accusing the western media of interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Reaction to Mr Holbrooke’s observations may be expected to be on the same lines, but what one may ignore while blasting Mr Holbrooke is fair comment on Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terrorism, which binds it to other nations trying to defend themselves collectively against it. And in this context, the truth of the matter is that the Swat accord has not satisfied many even inside Pakistan although the ANP has been generally supported in its effort to find a solution to the Swat situation in the face of the failure of the purely military operations there.

External scepticism about “peace accords” reached inside Pakistan’s tribal areas has evolved over a period of time as the accords were violated by the terrorists, confirming the internationally held view that you can’t negotiate with terrorists from a position of weakness. Any temporary improvement of the situation may persuade the terrorists to come to the negotiating table but only for gaining time to regroup and strike again. Some of the negative reaction to the Swat accord inside Pakistan is also based on this experience. As for Mr Holbrooke’s reported opinion that the military in Pakistan may be unwilling to back President Zardari’s approach to terrorism, it seems that, while the president and the army may be marching more or less in lockstep, the ANP government has often expressed doubt about the will of the army to fight terrorism.

It is, in fact, in the realm of “threat perception” that there are persistent differences between the Pakistani military and the international community. Mr Holbrooke has expressed the general western view that “militants involved in 9/11, the Mumbai attacks and unrest in Swat have common roots”. The world is focused on the likely presence of Al Qaeda leadership inside Pakistan. Of course, we cannot deny that Al Qaeda cadres are based in our tribal areas and are frequently killed by drone attacks. But it doesn’t matter if Pakistan repeatedly says that the drone attacks kill only local people. The fact is that Pakistan doesn’t feel, or has chosen to rationalise, the threat it should actually feel from Al Qaeda.

For the world outside, Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban are coextensive and work in tandem. There is a fourth element too, that of the non-Pashtun Punjabi militants who once worked under Al Qaeda when the latter was fighting the Soviet Union and was loved all over the world. The Pakistan army, and most politicians, do not see these elements as having sprung from the same root. Policy articulations, whenever they have come from the various state functionaries, separate Al Qaeda from the Taliban. The former are elements ousted from Afghanistan “who will return to their homeland after the Americans are gone from there”. Al Qaeda is a global entity which has to be fought by “resolving issues that constitute an injustice to the global Muslim community”. Pakistan divides the Taliban and identifies the Pakistani Taliban as elements that have arisen in sympathy for their Afghan brethren or have been alienated by collateral damage. Finally, the Pakistani national security establishment links its threat perception to a serious Indian presence in Afghanistan and thus subordinates all its policies against terrorism to the Indian factor. The mainstream political parties had tried to change this threat perception in their Charter of Democracy but have beaten a retreat from it after the Mumbai attacks and the reactive upsurge of Pakistan’s India-driven nationalism. (Daily Times)

'Bad guys' must not get hold of Pak territory: Holbrooke on Pak-Taliban deal
19 Feb 2009 (The Times of India)

WASHINGTON: Troubled over Pakistan government's concession to the Taliban in the Swat Valley, a top Obama administration official has said the US would not like "bad guys" to get hold of any territory in the country.

"We are troubled and confused in the sense about what happened in Swat, because it is not an encouraging trend," Richard Holbrooke, the Special US Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan told the PBS news channel in an interview.

Having just returned from South Asia wherein he met leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, Holbrooke said the Pakistanis are shocked at the fall of the picturesque Swat, which is after all a resort they all went to for vacations.

"So we have a situation in the area which is very serious. This is what we inherited," he said.

This is for the first time that an administration official has spoken clearly against the peace deal between the Taliban and the Pakistan government.

"Previous ceasefires have broken down and we do not want to see territory ceded to the bad guys. The people who took over Swat are very bad people," Holbrooke said.

The issue, he said, will be pursued during the next week's visit of a Pakistani delegation headed by Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had earlier said that Islamabad's efforts still needed to be "thoroughly understood" before making any comments.

So far the State Department has restrained itself from making any comment on the peace deal.

Holbrooke said this development would be pursued at a very high level when a Pakistani delegation headed by its foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, visits Washington next week to hold discussions with the officials and participate in the Afghan review process.

"The military would be represented in the foreign minister Qureshi's delegation, and you can be sure that this issue would be pursued at very high levels in our dialogue next week," he said.

Asked if the Pakistani military and the ISI is willing to make commitments in the publicly announced goal of Pakistan's president to get rid of the Taliban, Holbrooke said it is too early to arrive at any conclusion.

"This is a very important question, which we are exploring in depth now. I have rarely seen an issue in Washington, which is so hotly disputed internally by experts and intelligence officials, as the one you raised," he said.

"Let me say for the purpose of this interview that we are engaged in very intense discussion with the military leadership of Pakistan and the ISI about this particular issue," he said.

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