America’s regional envoy says Pakistan’s tribal areas are the problem.
His face tense and unsmiling, a young man from a village in Pakistan’s western tribal areas tells his story, mixing English, Pashto and Urdu. He is the only male in his clan to get an education, but can’t find a job, and blames a corrupt national government. Americans are bombing his neighbors, he says, tempting him to join the Islamist militants in his area. Across the room, another Pakistani turns toward his hosts at the U.S. Embassy and says, “You are hated.”
[The Weekend Interview] Ismael Roldan
The comments are addressed to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and the new American special representative for the region, Richard Holbrooke. Seated alongside the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, Mr. Holbrooke asks a dozen or so men in the room about the presence of the Taliban in their villages. “We are all Taliban,” comes a response. The others nod in accord. All are or were “religious students,” or Taliban in Pashto. But the expression of solidarity with the various Pakistani and Afghan insurgents who go by the name is lost on no one.
After the meeting, Mr. Holbrooke looks shaken, out of character for a diplomatic operator who picked up the nickname “bulldozer” a decade ago in the Balkans. As he knows, these men who spoke so directly to him are the “friendly” types from the tribal areas — literate, ambitious and willing to risk the ire of the Taliban fighters to meet him and Adm. Mullen at the embassy.
Their home regions of North and South Waziristan and the Khyber agency are familiar place names in this long war: as the world’s sanctuary to al Qaeda’s leadership, as the launching pad for attacks on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan, and as the source of the Islamist challenge to the civilian government atop this rickety nuclear-armed state.
The Obama administration recently unveiled a new strategy to enlarge America’s military footprint in Afghanistan and press Pakistan to act against Taliban safe havens. Mr. Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen took the policy on a regional road show this week, and at every stop got a sobering earful. While Afghanistan’s troubles are monumental, the nightmare scenarios start and end with Pakistan.
Mr. Holbrooke, who leads the diplomatic charge, acknowledges the hardest work will be here. His airplane reading is Dennis Kux’s history of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship titled, “The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies.” “Pakistan is at the center of our strategic concerns,” he tells me Tuesday night, flying from Islamabad to India’s capital, Delhi. “If Afghanistan had the best government on earth, a drug-free culture and no corruption it would still be unstable if the situation in Pakistan remained as today. That is an undisputable fact, and that is the core of the dilemma that the Western nations, the NATO alliance, face today.”
Take the dilemma a logical step further, I suggest. The terrorists who threaten America are in Pakistan, but the U.S. fights the Afghan Taliban, who don’t. “That’s a fair point,” says Mr. Holbrooke, “but the reason for fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is clear: The Taliban are the frontrunners for al Qaeda. If they succeed in Afghanistan, without any shadow of a doubt, al Qaeda would move back into Afghanistan, set up a larger presence, recruit more people and pursue its objectives against the United States even more aggressively.” Public support for the expanded U.S. Afghan mission hinges on making this case stick.
In a Hillary Clinton White House, Mr. Holbrooke would almost certainly be in charge at the State Department. In this administration, he serves Secretary Clinton and brings a familiar mix of enthusiasm and bluster, charming and bullying the world’s difficult characters. In the previous decade, Mr. Holbrooke brokered the end of the Bosnian conflict, working then as now closely with the military. He went on to write a memoir titled “To End a War” and become something of a celebrity in the Balkans, even having a bar in Kosovo named after him. The 1995 Dayton peace talks “was 21 days and it was pass or fail,” he says. “This is more complicated even than that.”
The complications in Afghanistan start with an incubator state and mind-boggling corruption, from top to bottom. The past year saw a sharp spike in Afghan civilian as well as American casualties. A rural insurgency is fed by anger at the government and money from the Gulf states, as well as the booming poppy trade. The administration will send 17,000 additional combat troops to confront the Taliban, initially in the south. Mr. Obama also approved 4,000 military trainers, and plans are in the works to double the target size for the army and the police.
Mr. Holbrooke needs to walk a fine diplomatic line. On the one hand, he assures people who know their history that America won’t pull the plug early on this project. At a meeting with Afghan female legislators who have most to fear from a Taliban comeback, he says, “President Obama has made a commitment. We will not abandon you.” On the other hand, the U.S. must counter Taliban propaganda that America replaced Russia as the occupying force. With conservative Afghan religious leaders, Mr. Holbrooke shifts his emphasis: “We are not here as occupiers. We are here to help you. We will leave when you no longer need us.”
Though Adm. Mullen provides the plane on this trip and holds the senior job, Mr. Holbrooke takes the lead in meetings. He moderates discussions like a big-band leader, improvising as necessary. “Good to have a force of nature on the case,” notes a European diplomat watching one performance over dinner in Kabul. “You’re reminded that half of diplomacy is theater.” Holbrooke detractors tend to put the proportion higher.
America sits in the driver’s seat in Afghanistan, but not Pakistan. Here it’s far from clear who does.
Flying into Islamabad, Mr. Holbrooke and Adm. Mullen call on the civilian and military rulers to ask for action against the militants in the tribal areas. The Pakistanis press back. At a joint press conference, the foreign minister is prickly, denouncing strikes by unmanned U.S. Predators on Pakistani territory and noting an absence of “trust.”
In private, American officials report no better progress. The Pakistanis say their terror problems are Afghanistan’s fault. They resent American criticism of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military’s intelligence arm that nurtured Islamist groups for decades, and rule out the deployment of any American troops on their territory.
Talking to the Pakistani press, Mr. Holbrooke says, “We face a common threat, a common challenge.” Pakistani civilians are concerned by the rising number of suicide bombings, now seen in once tranquil Islamabad and Lahore. Whether the army is as well is the question. The military struck a “peace” deal with the local Taliban in the Swat Valley. President Asif Ali Zardari didn’t sign the accord, but the military went ahead to implement it, turning a former tourist destination in the mountains into a Taliban redoubt beyond the reach of the Pakistani state. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan dates back to the previous regime’s 2006 truce with the militants in Pakistani border areas.
Among Pakistani politicians, Mr. Zardari speaks most clearly about the threat emanating from the country’s west, noting the assassination in late 2007 of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But he is politically weak, and sounds disinclined to push the military to wage war against the Pashtun tribes in the mountains.
“Holbrooke is a friend,” Mr. Zardari tells me and a couple other journalists along for the ride on this listening tour. “But it’s a long walk. And in that long walk I am losing the people of Pakistan.”
Mr. Holbrooke says the Pakistani president “deserves credit for his personal courage” in holding the job. He welcomes the “statesmanlike” resolution of a recent political feud with rival Nawaz Sharif over the reinstatement of a supreme court judge. The fight could have resulted, he says, in “civil war on the one hand or assassinations on the other.”
With politics a sideshow, many observers, including in American intelligence, think the Pakistani military and the ISI play a double game. They make the necessary pledges to secure billions in American aid while keeping ties to Islamists. The calculation, a Pakistani analyst notes, is America will leave sooner or later and the military needs to hedge its strategic bets.
“We are well aware of these accusations,” says Mr. Holbrooke. “But our experience with [Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani does not support them. We deal with him with respect and with the assumption that he is a serious person doing the best he can under difficult circumstances.”
As part of a “long-term commitment to Pakistan,” the Obama administration wants to lock in billions in aid for the country. Military officials also say the scope of Predator strikes will be broadened, against Pakistani official objections, and efforts to get the adversarial Pakistani and Afghan intelligence services to cooperate will be intensified. Mr. Holbrooke insists the U.S. will respect Pakistan’s “red lines” about American combat troops.
“Some people say to me, particularly after a few drinks, ‘Why don’t we go in there with our troops and just clean it up?'” he says. “First of all we can’t without their permission, and that would not be a good idea. Secondly, cleaning them up in the mountains of Pakistan’s tribal areas, as anyone can see from the search for al Qaeda in Afghanistan, is a daunting mission. It’s the same kind of mountains. A few weeks ago I flew up through the deepest and remotest valleys imaginable. You could see tiny villages in the crevices in the mountains. You don’t want American troops in there. So that option’s gone.”
Though only Pakistan and Afghanistan appear in his job title, Mr. Holbrooke isn’t one to think small. He helped court the Europeans to chip in more troops and aid — with no more success on the former than the Bush administration. He wants to press the Gulf states to cut the illicit flow of funding to the Taliban, involve India and reach out to the Chinese, who are close to the Pakistani military. Last month, at the donor’s conference on Afghanistan at The Hague, he was the first American official to engage an Iranian official since 1979. After Iran downplayed the encounter, so does Mr. Holbrooke. “I’m very much in favor of giving Iran a place at the table if it wants it to discuss the future of Afghanistan,” he says. “But they have not indicated whether they wish to participate or not.”
Mr. Holbrooke’s first posting was in Saigon in the 1960s. As Vietnam analogies for Afghanistan mushroom, particularly from inside his own Democratic Party, he doesn’t dismiss them outright. But he makes a case for continued engagement with a view, perhaps, toward firming up support on the Hill and among the public for a war about to enter its eighth year. “There are a lot of structural similarities” with Vietnam, he says. “The sanctuary [in Pakistan]. They even have a parrot’s peak in both countries, on the Pakistan-Afghan border just as there was in Cambodia. An issue of governance. The fact that the government was supporting a guerilla war. Counterinsurgency.
“But the fundamental difference is 9/11. The Vietcong and the north Vietnamese never posed a threat to the United States homeland. The people of 9/11 who were in that area still do and are still planning. That is why we’re in the region with troops. That’s the only justification for what we’re doing. If the tribal areas of western Pakistan were not a sanctuary, I believe that Afghanistan could take care of itself within a relatively short period of time.”
By MATTHEW KAMINSKI
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.