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Holbrooke Backs Embattled Pakistan Government

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/05/holbrooke-nato2-1024x681.jpgRichard Holbrooke (NATO Photo)

In his first appearance before Congress as the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke made a forceful, unequivocal and wide-ranging endorsement of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday afternoon, intended to dispel rumors that the administration was backing away from the current elected government of Pakistan.

“Our goal must be unambiguously to support and stabilize a democratic Pakistan headed by its elected president, Asif Ali Zardari,” Holbrooke said, opting to dodge several questions relevant to concerns over the viability of Zardari’s ability to govern.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Over the past several weeks, the administration has established ties to Zardari’s chief political rival, Nawaz Sharif, and it has been reported that the chief of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, has told legislators in private that the recent Taliban advances from the Swat Valley into the Buner district near Islamabad challenge the viability of the government.

Holbrooke confirmed U.S. outreach to Sharif but compared it to the ties the U.S. maintains with David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, and said that President Barack Obama’s personal invitation to Zardari to attend trilateral talks in Washington with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that formally begin tomorrow proves the administration’s commitment to his government.

“We should not allow comments about how serious the issue is to be confused with predictions of collapse,” Holbrooke said. “Pakistan is not a failed state. It is a state under extreme test.” He averred that the United States is “strongly opposed” to a military coup and “have made that clear to all parties, in public and privately.”

Tomorrow, both Zardari and Karzai will travel to the State Department and then the White House for both individual talks with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama and joint trilateral sessions, which Holbrooke called “historic.” He said that the interior ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan have never before met, despite U.S. insistence that Pakistan and Afghanistan have a joint security threat from al-Qaeda and the Taliban that has implications for U.S. national security.

Holbrooke, who occasionally appeared impatient with the legislators, made a forceful case that the United States had “vital” national interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan that justified a broad long-term commitment to both countries. “The goal has to be to defeat al-Qaeda,” he said in response to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). “We can’t let them take over an even larger [amount of] terrain.” Asked for an exit strategy by Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), who warned that Congress may only give the administration a grace period of a year to demonstrate progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan before growing weary of the war effort, Holbrooke replied, “There is a difference between an exit strategy and an exit timetable.”

Several members of Congress pressed for linking aid to Pakistan, which is the subject of a recently introduced funding bill written by the committee’s chair, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), to U.S. access to the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who ran a nuclear proliferation ring before the Pakistanis placed him under house arrest in 2004. Holbrooke rejected the linkage as unproductive but said he “found it inexplicable that A.Q. Khan was not immediately made available to the U.S.” The Pakistanis have forbidden U.S. officials from interviewing Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program and a national hero, despite frequent U.S. protests.

Holbrooke refused to speak in open session about several issues that have caused concern in the United States during the Taliban’s march this year from the Pakistani tribal areas to nearly 60 miles northwest of the capital, Islamabad. He said it would be inappropriate to discuss the Pakistani military’s control over its nuclear-weapons arsenal; the Pakistani intelligence service’s ties to elements of the Taliban; and efforts to stop money flowing from Saudi Arabia into radical madrassas. He disclosed that the Obama administration does not currently have a strategy for curbing foreign money from reaching the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan but said the development of one was a “top priority” for the administration. (Defense Secretary Bob Gates is currently in Saudi Arabia seeking to solicit Saudi influence against the Taliban in Pakistan.)

Holbrooke also appeared to soften the administration’s opposition to Berman’s Pakistan bill — its Senate counterpart, introduced yesterday by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), authorizes $7.5 billion in aid to the Pakistani government and civil society over five years — expressed last week by Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, who told the House Armed Services Committee that the bill was “too inflexible.” Holbrooke said that while the administration still had concerns over “some privisos” in the bill that conditioned funding upon a certification from the administration that Pakistan was unambiguously combatting al-Qaeda and Taliban efforts in Pakistan, it represented a “big improvement” over previous efforts that only gave aid to the Pakistani military. “We hope that it will be passed,” he said, offering to meet with lawmakers to resolve administration concerns about the bill’s conditions.

And while Holbrooke said that “we have long felt that our friends in Pakistan could put more resources into the struggle in the west” against the insurgency instead of remaining focused on Pakistan’s traditional threat from India on its eastern border, he suggested that the “momentum” may be shifting away from the Taliban beginning with Monday’s military push to drive the Taliban out of the Swat valley. “Until yesterday, the momentum did not appear be to be in the right hands,” Holbrooke said. “The army has now begun a major offensive… we will have to wait and see how this goes.”

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