Of the many advantages America still enjoys in West Asia - military strength, technological superiority, (albeit dwindling) political and economic leverage - time is not among them. Not just on the long-term horizon, but day to day too.
Part of Richard Holbrooke’s problem is time. Cramming two days in Pakistan before trips to Afghanistan and India seems to have created the feeling that every single complaint from Islamabad must be addressed before jetting off to New Delhi. Though Pakistan certainly needs to feel important since Holbrooke’s primary stop is India, expediency isn’t the answer.
America’s top diplomat in West Asia, by combining selective memory, insensitivity, and a focus on military matters, just morphed his latest jaunt from turbulence into a verifiable rampage.
Holbrooke refused to answer drone-related questions, saying, “This is an immensely complicated issue and when you talk about it too much, you work against the national interests of the United States and anyone who opposes the terrorists who are still out there... On this issue, I am not going to add fuel to the fire."
Certainly Islamabad’s unceasing complaints irritate Washington considering their secret agreement, yet Holbrooke isn’t specifically addressing this point. He’s really aiming at the protesters marching outside CIA headquarters demanding an end to drone strikes. Now these protesters seem to believe each dead terrorist costs 100 civilians, a blatant falsity. But their real demand rings truer - an explanation into the legality of lethal, covert operations in sovereign nations.
Thus Holbrooke is arguing that discussing the legality of drones, “works against the national interests of the United States and anyone who opposes the terrorists.” Evidently the CIA, operating at the White House’s whim, is above the law, a strange way to improve America’s image at home or abroad.
Holbrooke then began to sprinkle confusion by attacking those who question the validity of President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan when al-Qaeda is moving to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other hiding spots.
Referring to the suiciding bombing at Forward Operating Base Chapman, a CIA staging ground, he argued, "I think this incident highlights the explanation for what we are doing, because there are some shadowy but unmistakable connections here. The very close links between the Haqqani group, Mehsud, al Qaeda, and it underlines the rationale for our strategy. That was a horrifying tape. They've all claimed credit for it.”
Holbrooke’s “surprised horror” that Haqqani, the TTP and al-Qaeda are linked together simply cannot be real.
There are no shadows, America was fully aware of their connection before the bombing and is exploiting it to justify increasing emphasis on military operations. The CIA is obsessed with Mehsud, its pride wounded, and revenge has become the top priority. Holbrooke also left out that a drone strike replaced Baitullah Mehsud with Hakimullah, a known al-Qaeda disciple, highlighting how uncontrollable this strategy actually is.
Confusion started to rain harder as Holbrooke started selling the new Taliban reintegration program.
“There are a lot of people out there fighting for the Taliban who have no ideological commitment to the principles, values or political movement led by Mullah Omar,” he claims. “They're not supporters of the ideology of al-Qaeda. They don't even know who al-Qaeda is and yet they fight because they've been misled by false information.”
Holbrooke has a point if referring to desecrated Koran and civilian casualties rumors. The Taliban are experts in spreading disinformation and turning locals into accidental guerrillas. But assuming most Taliban fighters have no connection to Mullah Omar and that “they don’t even know who al-Qaeda is,” intentionally ignores America’s history in the region.
And even if most Taliban fighters aren’t ideologically committed to the Taliban’s religious creed, a stretch of logic in itself, this isn’t the same as opposing foreign troops or interference in their country. Many Taliban could care less about Sharia law and still want America out of Afghanistan.
Offering Taliban foot soldiers the choice of life or death may push more than expected towards death, and the reintegration program is likely to be more challenging than US officials are anticipating.
However, Holbrooke’s militarized mindset is only revealed in full by America’s inaction over Kashmir. After going all out to defend US military operations in their various forms, he’s running away from diplomacy between Pakistan and India. According to Pakistani media reports, Holbrooke claimed, “Easing tensions between India and Pakistan would help western efforts in Afghanistan.”
“President Obama has said publicly that if India and Pakistan improve their relations, he would welcome it,” Holbrooke told Reuters in an interview. “But it's up to them to do it for themselves. We are not inter-mediating between Islamabad and New Delhi.”
In other words, “here’s a non-military possibility to improve Afghanistan and we aren’t going to pursue it.”
“Every time I go to India people say: 'Are you working on this problem? Are you a messenger? Are you an envoy between the two countries?” Holbrooke said. “The answer's 'no.' Is it necessary? It would be useful.” Asked why, he replied: “For obvious reasons.”
Apparently not obvious enough. Though the three countries may be dealing in private, Pakistani leaders have reduced this possibility through their public criticism that India refuses to negotiate a resolution to Kashmir. And for calling on Obama to engage Kashmir. The only obviousness is his terror of losing his Indian buffer against China.
With Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his 125-member delegation trailing Holbrooke to discuss a new military strategy, the picture becomes even clearer on how America intends to solve its many problems in Afghanistan.
"Mr Gates may raise the drone issue as well," the Dawn reports, "urging Pakistan to stop public criticism of the air strikes because it believes that Islamabad’s reaction further increases anti-American sentiments in the country."
Holbrooke’s brief visit to Pakistan was less an exchange of ideas and more about “telling it like it is” through America’s eyes. Instead of picking a few key topics to mutually discuss with Pakistani officials and the media, Holbrooke seems to have jotted down every complaint and fired off a rebuttal before hitting the exit. The result is a spectacular failure in US diplomacy.
The Nation, as always, ripped into Holbrooke for his “Imperial Hubris,” but the progressive Daily Times was close behind.
“It is not befitting for an envoy, and a ‘special’ one at that, to flare up just because there has been a rise in the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan,” the Times wrote in yesterday’s editorial. “After all, the US is guilty of pursuing policies that are not very popular with the people. The Americans should not only listen to positive criticism but also learn from past mistakes.”
We’re still waiting.