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Holbrooke clarifies policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan

In case you were wondering, the US is not involved in any reconciliation process.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, left, talks to an aide as he waits for his part of the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jan. 21, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

BOSTON — In case you were confused about what exactly U.S. policy is on negotiating with the Taliban, Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, attempted to clarify the matter Thursday night. Speaking at a Harvard forum, Holbrooke said there were “two different kinds of engagement: reintegration and reconciliation.”

Reconciliation meant that Taliban leaders would begin to bridge their differences with the Kabul government, the eventual goal being some kind of power-sharing. “Let me be clear, ” Holbrooke said, there is no American involvement in any reconciliation process.

The Taliban is woven into the fabric of Pashtun society on both sides of the border with Pakistan, Holbrooke said, and almost every Pashtun family has someone involved with the movement. That’s why Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun himself, was reaching out to them. But there were “no negotiations with them,” Holbrooke said firmly.

Reintegration, on the other hand, means trying to find as many Taliban as possible who could be wooed into changing sides — a bottom-up instead of a top-down approach. American policy was directed at reintegration, Holbrooke said. That’s what was discussed at the recent international conference on Afghanistan in London, and that is what U.S. policy is directed towards.

He made no mention of any potential tension between the two approaches, with Karzai, perhaps, wanting a little more top-level reconciliation effort than the Americans were comfortable with. Nor was he asked about it during question time.

Holbrooke did respond to a questioner who said that the “road to Kabul led through Kashmir,” meaning that the long simmering Kashmiri problem between India and Pakistan, which has caused three real wars and a near war, was the root cause of Pakistan’s obsession with India. It was fear of India, and being out-flanked in Afghanistan, that led Pakistan to help form the Taliban in the first place. And it is fear of India that keeps Pakistan from completely renouncing the Taliban to this day. Solve Kashmir, and you so improve Indo-Pakistan relations that Pakistan can concentrate on Islamic extremists, who are the real threat, so the thinking goes.

Holbrooke would have none of it. He said that many people held to the theory but that he had come to “the opposite conclusion. I don’t even mention the K word,” he said. No one in the U.S. government is trying to negotiate the Kashmir question, he insisted, and he did not believe the issue was linked to Afghanistan.