With the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Umer Rashid investigates if this will impact the West’s relationship with this troubled region.
Many critics maintain that the Bush administration committed a grave strategic blunder in the ‘War on Terror’ by launching invasion of Iraq while leaving the campaign against Al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan unfinished.
During his presidential campaign, United States President Barack Obama pledged to wind down in Iraq and refocus the War on Terror to its original goal of uprooting Islamist militants from their safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The nomination of Richard Holbrooke as US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, collectively dubbed as ‘Afpak’, revealed that President Obama was determined in putting his new policy in place.
A seasoned diplomat who is best known as the architect of Dayton Accords which brought an end to the war in Bosnia, Richard Holbrooke now faces the arduous task of overseeing US efforts to combat terrorism in the region many analysts regard as the world’s most dangerous place.
Addressing a security conference in Munich before embarking on his first official visit to South Asian countries, Holbrooke acknowledged the gravity of the region’s security situation and emphasised the need for a multilateral approach to tackle the problem.
“It is like no other problem we have confronted, and in my view it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq. It is going to be a long, difficult struggle,” he said, “What is required in my view is new ideas, better co-ordination within the US government, better co-ordination with our Nato allies and other concerned countries, and the time to get it right.”
About eight years after US-led international coalition toppled the regime of Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan, the country is still far from showing any signs of stability. Although being uprooted from the capital Kabul and much of northern Afghanistan, Taliban and Al-Qaeda still hold sway over large swathes of the country in the south.
More recently, they have been able to expand their sphere of influence across the border in Pakistan as the largely ill-quipped and under-paid security forces of Pakistan seem unable to quell the suicide bombings and assassinations carried out by the armed-to-teeth terrorists.
“The nomination of Richard Holbrooke revealed that President Obama was determined in putting his new policy in place”
The public showing of the flogging of a 17-year girl and the execution of a man and woman in their forties at the hands of Taliban in Pakistan sent shock waves across the nation and abroad. Apart from destroying girls’ schools, assassinating political opponents and attacking military convoys in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan, the terrorists launched attacks on visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and police training centre in Lahore, Pakistan’s second biggest city and its cultural and intellectual capital. To the dismay of Pakistani cricket fans, International Cricket Council (ICC) stripped Pakistan of hosting rights for Cricket World Cup 2011 because of the appalling security situation in the country.
For past three decades, Pakistan’s military establishment nurtured Islamist militias as their proxies to gain ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and foment insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir. Many elements in Pakistani establishment are wary of India’s expanding influence in post-Taliban Afghanistan. They accuse India of using its presence in Afghanistan to support insurgency in Pakistan’s south-western province of Balochistan.
Moreover, they are dismayed by American reluctance to mediate between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the flashpoint between India and Pakistan and the casus belli for four wars between South Asian neighbours, now both nuclear-armed.
Many Pakistanis consider US drone attacks against terrorists in Pakistani areas as the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. It is primarily due to these misgivings Pakistani establishment is reluctant to take decisive measures against Taliban and Al-Qadea in spite of the fact that the latter have claimed hundreds of civilian lives across the country and among their victims include the former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.
On their part, India and Afghanistan – along with America – accuse Pakistan of turning a blind eye to Al-Qaeda’s activities and call for more serious action against terrorist outfits. Being the world’s sixth largest nation with 170 million population and having a large military armed with about 100 nuclear weapons, Pakistan stands high in the radar screen of global counter-terrorism operations.
The possibility of Islamist extremists taking control of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal weapons is the worst nightmare of the international community. It comes as no surprise as shortly after Holbrooke’s appointment, British and German governments followed suit in appointing their special envoys for Afpak.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have all suffered at the hands of Al-Qaeda’s terrorism but obsessed by their decades-old border disputes and mutual suspicions, they have been unable to formulate a cohesive strategy to combat the common enemy. It behoves these countries to realise that they are all in the same boat and it is high time to give cooperation, not confrontation, a chance. To bring these unfriendly neighbours on board for a joint effort against terrorism would be the real test of Holbrooke’s diplomacy.