Holbrooke clarifies policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan

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.

Holbrooke was quick to point out that India and Kashmir were not part of his brief, and the back story here, which he didn’t talk about, is that, although India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are intimately connected, India would never consider a special representative from Washington. India considers itself a world power, and didn’t want to be lumped in together with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Also, India didn’t want to be hectored by Holbrooke, or anybody else, about Kashmir, which India considers a domestic problem.

Holbrooke did say, however, that linking Afghanistan to Kashmir “would make both issues more difficult.” So, reading between his lines, you could conclude that, whatever you might think about the road to Kabul leading through Kashmir, any attempt to link them on the part of the United States would prove counter-productive.

In the partition of India in 1947, Kashmir, with its Muslim majority, went to India because its Hindu Raja declared for India, even though Pakistan was supposed to be the homeland for Muslims. It was interesting, therefore, to hear Holbrooke say that ceding Kashmir to India was a “shameful decision” on the part of Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy. This could be taken as showing sympathy for Pakistan’s position that Kashmir should have gone to Pakistan.

Holbrooke expressed sympathy for Pakistan in other matters last night, saying foreign aid had been under-funded, misdirected, and that Pakistanis were right in complaining that Washington did not consult with Islamabad about aid.

He said that Pakistan had very legitimate strategic interests in Afghanistan, but that other countries did to, and that is why he had been traveling in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union to get their views, and to India as well.

Holbrooke began his diplomatic career as a young official in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam war, and was asked to compare Afghanistan with Vietnam. He said that John Kennedy had been right not to send troops to Vietnam above the advisor level, and Lyndon Johnson wrong to escalate, because nothing in Vietnam threatened the American homeland.

But the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviets left in 1989 had been a colossal mistake that led to Al Qaeda and 9/11. President Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan, therefore was correct, Holbrooke said. A power vacuum in Afghanistan was dangerous to the United States.