Return of Richard Holbrooke
The Donors conference this week attended by 60 Foreign Ministers and other leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was, among other things, a demonstration by NATO and US led forces that they have the military muscle to host such a meet in Kabul.
And yet this statement of adequate military control was punctured by rocket attacks on Kabul airport causing Ban Ki Moon and Carl Bildt the Swedish Foreign Minister to divert their aircraft in the direction of Bagram air base for safe landing.
Mazar-e-Sharif, the most peaceful city in Afghanistan, became the scene of gruesome killing of allied officers. This month alone 67 US soldiers have been killed.
British Prime Minister David Cameron had in Washington indicated that his country’s troops may start leaving next year. This cannot be honeyed music to the new Force Commander David Petraeus who, more realistically, would like to retard force withdrawals until some unspecified date.
That President Hamid Karzai promises to be in readiness, with cent per cent Afghan Forces and Police, by 2014 must be taken with dollops of salt. The dignitaries in attendance had written him off as “not even a Mayor of Kabul” until last year.
By what magic has the international community been persuaded to regard him as the ultimate saviour, deliverer or whatever else, remains shrouded in mystery.
At some stage New Delhi too began to shower him with admiration, pleading with the “international community” to stop calling him names. I guess that was when New Delhi saw him as someone potentially at cross purposes with Islamabad, as he was during the Musharraf phase in Islamabad. Now that Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, having earned a three year extension, and his ISI chief Gen. Shuja Pasha, by brilliant public relations, established some sort of a rapport with Karzai, New Delhi should be sunk in deep thought.
Some of these deep thoughts must have been shared with Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Af-Pak, who made one of his rare public appearances in New Delhi.
He was, in a manner of speaking, barred from visiting New Delhi because the Indian establishment, in shrill unison, raised hands and all, blocked any institutionalized interest by him in Kashmir. Remember, “Kashmir” was sought to be added to his Af-Pak mandate.
In fact Holbrooke had come to the region with visions of directing not just US’s political but even military interests. All of that was, of course, circumscribed by Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ assertiveness.
And now that Holbrooke has resumed his travels to New Delhi, there must be an understanding that he will keep his finger on his lips on the “K” word. But for how long?
Clearly the return of Holbrooke is for several reasons. American officials are full of glowing accounts of the “Happy June” when a series of Indian delegations to Washington laid the foundations for a successful Obama visit later this year.
Preparation for a Presidential visit requires direct participation of the White House and the State Department. Hence the need for Holbrooke.
Also, the US President cannot be seen to be partisan between India, a rising economic and military power with a formidable naval reach, and Pakistan, an ally in the crucial Af-Pak region.
So, already some balm has been applied on Indian wounds by Holbrooke equating Lashkar-e-Taiba with Al Qaeda.
Just as the memory fades of the Krishna – Qureshi mishap in Islamabad, the Indo-Pak thread will once again be picked up. New Delhi, however, cannot proceed very far on this track (just watch the sparks during Parliament’s monsoon session) unless Indian public opinion is assured that the January 6, 2004 Islamabad agreement that the “territory of Pakistan” will not be used for terrorism against India is picked up by the Pak establishment as a serious agreement.
Official helplessness in Islamabad at their inability to control “non state” militant actors appears not to be sustainable after the Headley revelations. Or is there something here which is not in the public domain?
The political minefields on the New Delhi – Islamabad – Kabul – Teheran tracks have to be diligently cleared for a successful visit by the US President. Holbrooke cannot be oblivious to this task.
Once New Delhi’s legitimate misgivings on terrorism are removed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will give Indo-Pak talks the sort of acceleration that will enable Islamabad to concentrate on the Pakhtoon areas on both sides.
New Delhi has had traditional relations with Pakhtoons and strategic ones with the non Pakhtoon grouping which goes under the blanket term – Northern Alliance. In the latter, Iranians and Russian’s once played a crucial role. That thread is to be picked up surreptitiously.
The hurried, six hour, notional Kabul conference was a desperate way for 60 plus participants to reassure the world that their collective efforts on Afghanistan might bear fruit.
But the esteemed participants would have to be victims of a grand delusion that they have not left Afghanistan messier than ever.
Does New Delhi really wish to sully itself in the Afghan slush in a hurry, where, mark my word, no Endgame is in sight. It is even more remote after the Kabul theatre. David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, Medvedev are all New Delhi bound before year end. There is plenty of time to deliberate.
Meanwhile, the Indo-Pak track promises much more provided the US, in preparation for the Obama visit, becomes serious on the elimination of Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates. This too will have to be taken up with other visitors.
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