Feb 19, 2009

Friends, foes or masters?

As waiters at the Cuckoo's Den café in Lahore, breathtakingly located on the rooftop of an old 'haveli' a stone's throw from the majestic Badshahi Mosque and Lahore Fort, scurried to fetch the ambassador the 'daal' he wanted to accompany his kebabs, it was clear that Holbrooke was a man who knew his mind. The simple lentil dish had not been incorporated in the menu, since, in true Lahori style, hospitality focussed chiefly around dishes dominated by meat.

Indeed, even the fact that the new US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan had chosen to visit the restaurant located in the heart of Lahore, where a select dinner was arranged or to overfly troubled tribal areas and drop in briefly at Mohmand, represents a break with the past. Many previous US visitors have preferred to remain cloistered in Islamabad, guarded by elite security, aware that Pakistan has been rated the world's most dangerous place and that hatred for the US is a reality in streets, in bazaars and even in the living rooms of the relatively affluent. For those who met him, the straight-talking Holbrooke, known as a man who means business, made it clear he plans change. He also confessed to being bewildered – a reaction that is hardly surprising given the magnitude of Pakistan's issues. Indeed, we all frequently suffer from the same sense of befuddlement. Perhaps preferring to keep his thoughts to himself till he had acquired a better grip on the country's convoluted problems, the Ambassador made it a point to listen carefully to everyone he spoke to and seemed able to persuade men like PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, whom he met in Lahore, that a new bend in the road along which Pak-US relations move had been reached.

The question though is what we will find once that bend is circumvented. The choice of Holbrooke for a key role in the Pak-Afghan region is itself indicative of US thinking. The Ambassador has been a part of the terrible abuses carried out in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam some 40 years ago; some years later he encouraged South Korean troops to mow down pro-democracy demonstrators. In the Balkans, where the US government says he helped end a nasty war, the realities he put in place are controversial. Holbrooke and his team are accused of permitting Serbs to hang on to almost all the territory they had seized after ethnically cleansing Muslim populations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and of creating sectarian divides within the former Yugoslavia that are still a source of instability and friction. The record is hardly an encouraging one. Questions have been raised as to why Holbrooke was chosen in the first place. The answer seems to lie in the fact that he is a man who is liked and trusted by the new Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, who is said at one point to have recommended him for the post she now holds herself.

So far, Pakistan has seen the more affable side of Richard Holbrooke. But he has already made it clear he is not a man to be trifled with. Islamabad insiders say that some fairly polite but distinct arm-twisting by Holbrooke, followed up by a phone call from President Barack Obama, was a key factor in the dramatic press conference in which interior advisor Rehman Malik conceded the Mumbai attack of 26th November had been partially planned in Pakistan. Even some of the best connected bureaucrats in Islamabad had no idea till hours before the event that the disclosure was to be made.

To all those who spoke at length to him, Holbrooke made it clear changes were on the cards. The Obama administration sees the Pak-Afghan region as central to its foreign policy. Some accounts say the President himself has been poring over maps and books on the region to find answers. For Islamabad, the question of what answers he comes up with will of course be crucial. In the longer term, with Washington clearly deeply impatient with the puppet regime of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, the possibility of carving out a new state of 'Pushtoonistan' is said to have been tabled. The ethnic, geographical and strategic implications of this are said to be under study.

But all this is for the future. Over the past few decades we have been inundated with scenarios put forward by various think-tanks, involving the Balkanization of Pakistan. The fact that there is a complete breakdown of order within the state, as it now exists, seems to add to the possibility of this. The NWFP has effectively slipped away from any kind of central control. Maulana Fazalullah commands Swat where a dubious peace deal is being worked out, the Taliban dictate events in Waziristan, Mangal Bagh dominates the Khyber Agency and even in Peshawar, where goods intended for NATO troops including luxury cheeses, tinned foods, quilts and laptop computers sell openly on the pavements, anarchy seems to be expanding. But despite all this, any re-definition of boundaries is unlikely in the near future. Even less likely is the possibility that the US will draw out of the region. The fact is it is likely to remain a key player, for better and for worse. While its presence in the region has brought nothing but grief for Pakistan – in the form of religious extremism and militancy, crippling ethnic divides, instability and disrupted democracy – there must be some question as to whether an immediate pull out would only plunge the country into still greater peril. Within the institutions that make up the 'establishment', the thinking seems clear: The Taliban may return to power in Afghanistan; alignment with them internally therefore needs to continue and a full-fledged war against them could cause dangerous fault-lines to emerge. There is also evidence that the drone attacks are taking out key targets. They will not be ended, and at least some in key security posts believe if they did the Al-Qaeda would gain strength.

The situation is a complex one. Sometimes it seems there are no solutions. The US presence inspires hatred and spurs on militancy. But the Pakistani leadership's ability to combat terrorists is questionable. As Holbrooke draws up a blue print for a new era, Pakistan must ensure its own plans can be worked into it. People must be brought in to play a role in securing the future of the country. They are, potentially, a far more potent force than the US for all the technology they possess, including the unmanned planes now said to be stationed within Pakistan.

It seems likely that as a result of the latest, often intense negotiations, described by some on the Pakistani side as 'exhausting' given the energy of the reputedly untiring Mr. Holbrooke, the drone flights will be converted into joint attacks with an overt role for Pakistan security forces. There has also been talk of closer regional cooperation, bringing India in to the Pak-Afghan equation. We do not know what agreements have been reached. At present, Washington continues to play the role of master. It must realize this has to change if there is to be any success in calming a region where hatred inspires terrible violence and where militancy threatens to tear apart nations.
By Kamila Hyat The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

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