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Appointment of Richard Holbrooke unnerves South Asia

The new envoy, a veteran diplomat nicknamed 'the Bulldozer,' called the Afghan government a failure and put pressure on Pakistan to battle extremists.

February 02, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — President Obama has taken painstaking care in the first days of his administration to calm the waters of international relations with promises of cooperation and respect for other nations.

But his new envoy to South Asia has landed with a splash.

Officials in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have reacted uneasily to the appointment of Richard Holbrooke, a veteran diplomat nicknamed "the Bulldozer."

Holbrooke, who embarks on his first official visit this week, has declared in recent months that the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a longtime American ally, has failed. In opinion columns, he has pointed to "massive, officially sanctioned corruption," along with drugs, as the country's most severe problems.

Holbrooke has also called for vigorous action to deal with extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan. He charged that Pakistan has the power to destabilize its neighbor Afghanistan, "and has."

He has even taken a shot at the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, saying that because of his support for using herbicides on opium poppies, he's known in Kabul as "Chemical Bill." The nickname is a reference to Ali Hassan Majid, Saddam Hussein's cousin, who became notorious for ordering poison gas attacks on Iraqi Kurds and was given the name "Chemical Ali."

To Afghans, Holbrooke's appointment reinforces tough talk by Vice President Joe Biden, who signaled in a visit last month that the United States could scale back its support for Karzai unless he changes his ways.

But the U.S. message "has been met with a groan in Kabul," said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked in the State Department under the Bush administration.

Pakistani officials are trying to decide what to make of Holbrooke's appointment.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari wrote a column last week praising and welcoming Holbrooke. But Zardari also included a warning seemingly intended to keep Holbrooke from complaining about Pakistani inaction against extremists in the border areas.

"With all due respect, we need no lectures on our commitment. This is our war," Zardari wrote in the Washington Post.

Indian officials expressed approval after Holbrooke's mission was reshaped at the last moment to exclude the territorial dispute over Kashmir, which has divided India and Pakistan for decades.

U.S. officials later clarified that although Kashmir is not officially part of the job, Holbrooke will try to draw New Delhi into the conversation because India-Pakistan tensions affect stability in the region.

U.S. officials, concerned about public perceptions in a region that has grown increasingly unhappy with the foreign presence, have been soft-pedaling Holbrooke's role, saying he would function solely as a "coordinator."

Yet those who know him have no doubt that Holbrooke will have far-reaching influence.

The envoy, 67, is best known as the architect of the Dayton peace accord of 1995 that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was former President Clinton's favorite diplomatic trouble-shooter and a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He has been nominated seven times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Holbrooke is good dealing with tough guys; he's had a lot of experience with corrupt governments, which here will be important as well," said Kenneth Bacon, a former Pentagon official who knows Holbrooke from the Bosnian war era and is now president of Refugees International, which is involved in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Holbrooke was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief foreign policy advisor during the 2008 presidential primary campaign, before switching over to advise Obama in the general election campaign. Holbrooke was perennially mentioned as a potential secretary of State.

Yet in the week since he was appointed, some of the challenges of this job have already become apparent.

This job will require a different set of skills from the ones he used in the Balkans, when he pressured Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic with the threat of NATO bombing and promise of possible membership in the European Union.

In South Asia, military threats have little value. And negotiations over key issues have filled "a graveyard of conflict mediators," Markey said.

"The problems of South Asia are not especially amenable to U.S. shuttle diplomacy," Markey wrote on Foreign Policy magazine's website. He said that "no amount of U.S. browbeating or inducement" would overcome divisions on issues such as Kashmir, and that greater U.S. involvement could backfire.

Another challenge will be sorting out who in the new administration will have the most influence in the region.

Although Holbrooke's skills as a bureaucratic infighter are legendary in government circles, other powerful figures will also want a piece of the action.

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