Jan 12, 2010

Questions for Holbrooke

Anjum Niaz

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting

Richard Holbrooke appears to be running out of options on what to offer the rulers of Pakistan. But creative as he is, he arrives in Pakistan this week, with his latest lure. While he's no Santa coming with a bagful of dollars, he comes waving a white flag. He wants to broker a peace deal between the feuding politicians and the establishment in Pakistan. The United States, he says, has good relations and respect for the Pakistani military. "We also have good relations with Nawaz Sharif and others in the opposition," he informed a group of Pakistani journalists invited for a heart-to-heart at the State Department in Washington DC last week.

Does he sound too intrusive? Well, here's another zinger: "If we are asked and people think it will help, as in the past, we will [broker peace between the politicians and the military]. We are watching (the situation) with sympathy and support the elected government." When reminded that this amounted to interference in internal affairs of Pakistan, Holbrooke said: "We are not interfering (in Pakistan's internal affairs)… but we are friends of Pakistani people and of the elected government."

Hello… did we hear him right? Did he claim to be "Friends of Pakistani people"?

Holbrooke who has surfaced after a long hiatus (I wonder what he was up to all these months) has never before bothered to factor in the interests of common Pakistanis who really don't exist for the American policy-makers. The US has traditionally dealt with a claque of leaders who don't represent the interests of the masses; they represent their own selfish interests. Any leader willing to toe the US line on 'war against terror' is Washington's favoured one until one day he or she loses his or her use and is eliminated from the political scene, as happened to Gen Musharraf.

America has been playing a very dangerous game and if history is any guide then it has been getting badly burnt in the process. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have ruined the country's economy. Just look around the wasteland called the US today. Eighty-five thousand Americans have lost their jobs in December. Senior citizens who should be enjoying retirement have lost all their social security benefits and are being forced back into the labour force. The stores are empty. People don't have money to shop. Putting food on the table is presenting a challenge to the poor. Health care is in a shambles. "I've never seen businesses suffer like this before," says Fredrick Murad, my car mechanic.

President Obama, who only 12 months ago carried a halo around his face, promising to be the saviour, has fallen low in the public eye. He has failed to live up to his campaign promises – not a single one of them has he fulfilled. "He's a one-time president, for sure," say many Americans who are convinced that he's bad news for the country. The Americans will not re-elect him in 2012, vouch the political pundits.

Recently I watched Admiral Mike Mullen, the top man in the military on 'Daily Show with Jon Stewart' on Comedy Central. The show became famous in Pakistan when Musharraf arranged to be a guest only to sell his book. But our ex-president hit it off with the comic. He even made him laugh. I was looking forward to a hearty gup-shup between the admiral and his host, similar to the Musharraf exchange. But Mullen was sullen, to say the least. He was humourless, unsmiling and tense like an overstretched rubber band. It seemed he would snap any moment. The host was clever enough not to needle the admiral. He let him have his say. Now this is not the Mullen we know, watch or read about when he comes to Pakistan. He and our top military man, General Kayani, spend hours talking over several cups of tea, according to Mullen. He likes and respects Kayani. The admiral comes across as a professional soldier with a twinkle in the eye. He is known to have a sense of humour.

During Mullen's monologue on how America manages to win by defeating its enemies in the end, he brought up Pakistan each time he talked of Afghanistan. But Jon Stewart was not interested in engaging him on Pakistan. Watching the brittleness of Mullen would convince any viewer that America's 'war on terror' is not going well.

A Pakistan-watcher in Washington DC says that the media back in Islamabad must ask Holbrooke tough questions on the estimated $7.5 billion projected as aid to Pakistan. Here are some questions Hobrooke must be asked, he says: who will determine where the money should go? How much of it will actually be allocated to health and education? How much will go towards development? Who are the US contractors coming to Pakistan to set up the various projects? Who will be the local NGOs that will get chosen to be given the funds and for what?

USAID in Islamabad too needs to answer questions from the Pakistani media. Amy Meyers, who literally controlled the agency in Islamabad for four years, and was known to have become 'arrogant', has suddenly been eased out. Why? Perhaps Holbrooke has the answer. He should be asked at least. He may not give us a straight answer.

Conversely, Obama's special representative expects an honest answer from our leaders – both military and civilians -- regarding the threats voiced by the Indian military chief. General Deepak Kapoor boasted that India could take on Pakistan and China simultaneously and "bring it to a satisfactory conclusion in 96 hours." Holbrooke is unwilling to believe the statement unless President Zardari and General Kayani tell him to 'read our lips'!

By the same token, our leaders too must engage in some blunt-speak. They must question Peter Chamberlain's nerve-jangling assertion that the "The US has decided that to win the war in Afghanistan, it must attack its closest ally in the war, because allegedly, Pakistan is the state sponsor of the Afghan Taliban." Chamberlin, a defence analyst determined to expose the 'lies' of the American government, makes even more appalling allegations blaming the "American motives and CIA dishonesty as the primary source of problems in this war." His weblog, Therearenosunglasses's, carries inflammable stuff.

In his latest article Image of the Beast, he writes: "Obama's minor investigation into agency shortcomings demonstrated during the underwear bombing incident (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who tried to blow up a jetliner over the US filled with Christmas travellers), the destruction of the CIA drone centre in Khost and the scathing NATO report on US intelligence shortcomings, on the heels of the Eric Holder investigation of CIA torture. All of these ongoing problems scream of an out-of-control spy agency. We have entrusted the CIA to lead this intelligence-driven war and time after time, but the egomaniacal spooks have consistently dropped the ball."

Pakistanis have every right to question such flagitious conspiracy theories. And should Holbrooke worry about US aid to Pakistan being pilfered, he must be told that while the US wants to disburse aid through its own official agency, the USAID, the corruption and ineptitude of its contractors is well-documented. "So, for once Pakistan should not be faulted for corruption," says the Pakistan-watcher in Washington, "The US contractors are the ones who are corrupt."

And by the way, half the funds allocated as aid to Pakistan never leave the US, according to development experts!

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