What Holbrooke Knew

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nicholas D. Kristof

US AfghanistanWhen he was alive, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was effectively gagged, unable to comment on what he saw as missteps of the Obama administration that he served. But as we face a crisis in Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden, it’s worth listening to Holbrooke’s counsel — from beyond the grave.

As one of America’s finest strategic thinkers and special envoy to the Af-Pak region, Holbrooke represented the administration — but also chafed at aspects of the White House approach. In particular, he winced at the overreliance on military force, for it reminded him of Vietnam.

“There are structural similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam,” he noted, in scattered reflections now in the hands of his widow, Kati Marton.

“He thought that this could become Obama’s Vietnam,” Marton recalled. “Some of the conversations in the Situation Room reminded him of conversations in the Johnson White House. When he raised that, Obama didn’t want to hear it.”

Because he was fiercely loyal to his friend Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, Holbrooke bit his lip and kept quiet in public. But he died in December, and Marton and some of his friends (me included) believe it’s time to lift the cone of silence and share his private views. At this time, with Pakistan relations in a crisis and Afghanistan under review, our country could use a dose of his wisdom.

Holbrooke opposed the military “surge” in Afghanistan and would see the demise of Bin Laden as an opportunity to go into diplomatic overdrive. He believed strongly that the only way out of the mess in Afghanistan was a peace deal with the Taliban, and his team was secretly engaged in outreach to figures linked to the Taliban, Marton says.

“Reconciliation — that was what he was working toward in Afghanistan, and building up the civilian and political side that had been swamped by the military,” Marton recalled. “The whole policy was off-kilter, way too militarized. Richard never thought that this war could be won on the battlefield.”

His aim, she says, was something like the Balkan peace agreement he negotiated at a military base in Dayton, Ohio. The process would be led by the United States but include all the regional players, including Pakistan and Iran.

“He was dreaming of a Dayton-like setting somewhere, isolated, no media, no Washington bureaucracy,” Marton said. “He was a long way from that, but he was dreaming of that.”

Vali Nasr, a member of Holbrooke’s team at the State Department, puts it this way: “He understood from his experience that every conflict has to end at the negotiating table.”

Nasr says that Holbrooke’s aim for Afghanistan was “not cut-and-run, but a viable, lasting solution” to end the civil war there. If Holbrooke were still alive, Nasr says, he would be shuttling frantically between Islamabad and Kabul, trying to take advantage of Bin Laden’s killing to lay the groundwork for a peace process.

To do that, though, we have to put diplomacy and development — and not 100,000 troops, costing $10 billion a month — at the heart of our Afghan policy. Holbrooke was bemused that he would arrive at a meeting in a taxi, while Gen. David Petraeus would arrive escorted by what seemed a battalion of aides. And Holbrooke would flinch when Petraeus would warmly refer to him as his “wingman” — meaning it as a huge compliment — rather than seeing military force as the adjunct to diplomacy.

As for Pakistan, Holbrooke told me and others that because of its size and nuclear weaponry, it was center stage; Afghanistan was a sideshow.

“A stable Afghanistan is not essential; a stable Pakistan is essential,” he noted, in the musings he left behind. He believed that a crucial step to reducing radicalism in Pakistan was to ease the Kashmir dispute with India, and he favored more pressure on India to achieve that.

Holbrooke was frustrated by Islamabad’s duplicity. But he also realized that Pakistan sheltered the Afghan Taliban because it distrusted the United States, particularly after the United States walked away in 1989 after the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan. And renewed threats of abandonment won’t build trust.

Rather, Holbrooke poured his soul into building a relationship not only with Pakistani generals but also with the Pakistani people, and there were modest dividends. He helped improve C.I.A. access to Pakistan, which may have helped with the raid on the Bin Laden compound. And he soothed opposition to drone attacks, Nasr noted.

“He was treating them as a serious player, not as if you’re just having a one-night stand but as if there might actually be marriage at the end of the relationship,” Marton said.

It’s a vision of painstaking diplomacy toward a strategic goal — peace — and it’s what we need more of. President Obama said wonderful things at the memorial service for Holbrooke. But the best tribute would be to listen to his advice.

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India Wants “Peace” with Pakistan

July 2, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Indo-Pak talks have been on hold since Mumbai-strikes in November last year. The two sides agreed to revive talks at first top-level contact last month in Russia on sidelines of a summit. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held talks with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari (June 16). On his return, while briefing media on his Russia-visit, regarding his talks with Zardari, Singh said: “We discussed India-Pakistan relations, which remain under considerable stress. The primary cause of this, as everyone knows, is terrorist attacks against India from Pakistani territory. I conveyed to President Zardari the full extent of our expectation that the Government of Pakistan take strong and effective action to prevent use of Pakistan’s territory for terrorist attacks against India, act against perpetrators of past attacks and dismantle infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan. The President of Pakistan told me of Pakistan’s efforts to deal with this menace and the difficulties that they face.” “We agreed that our foreign secretaries will discuss what Pakistan is doing and can do to prevent terrorism from Pakistan against India and to bring those responsible for these attacks to justice including the horrendous crime of the attacks in Mumbai. They will report to us and we will take stock of the situation when we are at Sharm-el-Sheikh for the Non-aligned Summit in mid-July,” Singh said.

“I have spoken before of my vision of a cooperative subcontinent, and of the vital interest that India and the people of the subcontinent have in peace. For this we must try again to make peace with Pakistan. It also requires effective and strong action against the enemies of peace. If the leaders of Pakistan have the courage, determination and statesmanship to take the high road to peace, India will meet them more than half-way,” Singh said.

Undeniably, Singh’s comments suggest that India and Pakistan are making most of opportunities available to discuss terrorism and revival of their stalled talks. It was with this aim that Singh held talks with Zardari, without any “structured agenda.” During their talks, they also set the stage for subsequent meetings between them and at other levels. Not surprisingly, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna met his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on sidelines of G8 Outreach Af-Pak Summit in Italy’s Trieste city (June 26). It was the second high-level contact in a month. After his meeting with Qureshi, Krishna told media: “I am glad that this international conference has provided an opportunity for bilateral meeting with my counterpart from Pakistan.” The two ministers reviewed current status of Indo-Pak relations, which have remained under “considerable stress” because of terrorist attacks on India by elements based in Pakistan, Krishna said. They agreed on “vast potential that exist in India-Pakistan relations.” Krishna conveyed New Delhi’s stand, that India is “ready to meet Pakistan more than half way to utilize and harness that potential for our mutual benefit. At the same time, we have to address centrally why our relations come under stress recurrently.”

Efforts being made to bring Indo-Pak ties on track assume significance, as United States is also keen on improvement in their bilateral relations. In keeping with Af-Pak policy being pursued by President Barack Obama, United States National Security Adviser James Jones was here last week after stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jones held separate talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his Indian counterpart M.K. Narayanan and other Indian leaders (June 26). Jones is first high-ranking US official to visit India following India and Pakistan’s agreement to revive stalled talks and discuss steps taken by Islamabad on tackling terrorism targeting India by militants based in Pakistan. Jones’ visit also assumes significance with it taking place ahead of proposed visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this month.

The key issues touched on during talks Jones held with Indian leaders were: “Pakistan and terrorism emanating from there against India.” Jones is also understood to have shared his assessment of situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where operations are continuing against Taliban militants. During his talks in Islamabad and New Delhi, Jones laid stress that attacks such as Mumbai-strikes must be prevented, according to sources. He also “vowed” United States’ move to help India and Pakistan improve their ties and combat militant threat.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert O. Blake told a panel of House of Representatives last week: “India and Pakistan face common challenges, and we will support continuing dialogue to find joint solutions to counter terrorism and to promote regional stability.” “The timing, scope, and content of any such dialogue are strictly matters for Pakistani and Indian leaders to decide,” he said.

Though India remains dissatisfied with Pakistan having not taken necessary steps against those responsible for Mumbai-strikes, there is no doubt that two countries have displayed serious interest in recent past to revive their talks. Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony told a group of senior military commanders last week: “We must be vigilant about happenings on our western border, while at the same time, try to make peace with our neighbor.” Asserting that India should not be viewed as a “threat” by Pakistan, Chief of Army Staff Deepak Kapoor said: “It’s their own perception of threat, but India has never been a threat to Pakistan despite having superior forces” (June 27). Speaking to newsmen at the Combined Graduation Parade of the Indian Air Force cadets at the Air Force Academy at Dindigul near Hyderabad, he said: “We on our side like to live as peaceful neighbors. We will be happy if Pakistan fights terror not only on its western borders but also on the eastern border.”

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