June 8, 2009


Several days before President Obama spoke in Cairo, Osama bin Laden released a counter message in which he, among other things, blamed Pakistan's refugee crisis on America.

To which US special envoy Richard Holbrooke replied, "The idea that anyone is responsible for the refugee crisis other than al-Qaeda and the Taliban and the other people that have caused such tragedy in Pakistan is ludicrous. This entire problem began with al-Qaeda and its associates and everybody in the world knows that. It's silly indeed to respond to such a ludicrous charge.”

But it’s Holbrooke who looks ludicrous in the Pakistani press.

"The Special Envoy was back on a three-day visit,” read an editorial in The Nation. “Increasingly he looked and acted like a viceroy. What a picture it was to watch him fielding questions from the media with President Asif Zardari solemnly standing next to him and Messrs Qureshi, Qaira and Rehman Malik obediently, in attendance.”

Mr. Holbrooke had visited Pakistan to survey refugee camps in Swat Valley and provide physical proof that America sincerely cares about Pakistan. He pledged an additional $200 million dollars in humanitarian aid on top of the $300 million America’s already donated. Pakistanis are grateful to receive this assistance, but they feel that America owes it to them.

“Oh and Uncle Holbrooke, thank you for the 200 million dollars,” quipped Shakir Husain of the News International. “Much appreciated.”

Mr. Holbrooke would be wise to understand that sentiment, and also the obviousness that his very presence is proof that America feels responsible behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, his denial of blame is the least of his problems. His interaction with Pakistani president Asif Zardari provoked howls of indignation.

“It was ridiculous for the president to present himself at Holbrooke’s press conference,” writes Ejaz Haider in the Daily Times. “It was shameful to see him standing in between the American envoy and his own foreign minister, looking like an aide.”

Mr. Holbrooke didn’t seem to sense the hostility, or else he did when he appealed, “I hope people of Pakistan will understand our country’s leading role in responding quickly in this hour of need. President Obama is personally involved in it as US really cares for Pakistan.”

Desperation is difficult to conceal though, and attracts the sharks. Ghazi Salahuddin wrote in the News International, “Holbrooke repeatedly underlined the dominant US share in humanitarian assistance given to Pakistan and seemed anxious for its appreciation by the people of Pakistan.”

The taunts intensified. Shakir Husain observed, “By the looks of it Mr Holbrooke spends as much time in Pakistan as President Zardari, and definitely much more time than ex-president Musharraf. Maybe we should just give him a Pakistani passport to make his life easier at the immigration counter?”

Already losing popularity, Holbrooke dug his hole still deeper. The Nation reported, “When asked at a press conference at Islamabad on Friday that the US was not respecting Pakistanis' sentiments against these drones, Mr Holbrooke maintained that not a single Pakistani, official or member of the civil society, had mentioned the issue to him.”

But it turns out Pakistani officials had mentioned drone attacks, most notably prime minister Yousaf Gilani, and he isn’t happy with Holbrooke.

“We are strongly against these attacks because they are against our strategy of segregating peace-loving tribal people and militants,” said Gilani, who made clear that the attacks were brought up. “We have asked the US to provide Pakistan the technology and the possession of drones so that in case of credible intelligence, we ourselves can take action.”

Amazingly Mr. Holbrooke’s troubles don’t end here. He also drew criticism for wooing opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and is accused of softening Sharif’s position on drones. America doesn’t appear to have learned from Musharraf because Sharif is now taking fire for his tacit silence, so much that the chief of his party, the PML-N, wrote an editorial assuring his opposition to drone attacks.

These events are disturbingly simultaneous to President Obama’s speech in Cairo. If what Obama said is true, it’s hard to imagine he would favor the image Mr. Holbrooke’s projecting in Pakistan. Only recently General David Petaeus claimed, “anti-US sentiment has been increasing in Pakistan.”

Now why could that be?

President Obama must realize that American officials are too close to the fire and should pull them back. There’s no reason they can’t work quieter and a little more hands off, it may even help them succeed. They should also be more truthful if America wishes to be trusted again.

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