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Holbrooke’s Takeaway From the U.S.-Afghan-Pakistani Trilateral Meetings

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning, right on time to survey the outcome of last week’s trilateral meetings between the U.S., Afghan and Pakistani governments, as well as the beginning of the Pakistani military’s ongoing offensive against the Taliban in and beyond the Swat Valley. Here’s Holbrooke’s overview:

– The trilaterals were “not just a photo op.” Afghan and Pakistani ministers of agriculture, interior and finance had “never met each other.” As a result, they agreed to hold four sets of meetings per year — “We have set up working groups and task forces” on “water resource management… to negotiating the trade transit agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan… to perhaps, the most difficult of all, intelligence cooperation.” This will “improve chances achieving our objectives.” But what matters is cooperation on the ground, bilaterally. … So what resulted from the meetings?

– The situation in Pakistan “extremely difficult.” You’re not going to find perfection “in any of our policies in this part of the world.” Holbrooke raises his Vietnam experience. “People ask me if this is another Vietnam,” he said. “Structurally there are many similarities,” including corruption, inadequacies in strategy, “sometimes our own strategy.” But the “core difference” is “9/11. There was no threat from the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army to the homeland of the United States … Our enemies now include people who do.” al-Qaeda is “camped out in western Pakistan … these are the men who killed Benazir [Bhutto], who did Mumbai, who attacked the cricket team in Lahore, who attacked the United States … If it were not for that fact, Mr. Chairman…we would not be having this kind of colloquy.” Always back to the core interest at stake.

– Holbrooke praised the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan bill, which “corrects an imbalance” in funding Pakistan, which was too heavily military. He also commended the committee’s Thursday lunch with Presidents Karzai and Zardari. Much different tone than the snippiness he showed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. The questions asked there were “tougher than those asked at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, at the State Department.” Ooooh.

– Pakistan is “not a failed state.” Politically, “we have a democratically elected government after decades of military rule which was excessively supported, in my view, by the United States.” He reiterated that supporting democracy in Pakistan should be “a core objective.” Every opinion poll shows a desire for a democratic Pakistan, despite the rivalry between Zardari’s party and Nawaz Sharif’s rival party. “Very pleased” by the parties’ coalition government in the Punjab. “A big step forward,” he said. “Before we throw up our hands… let’s recognize with a lot of encouragement from their friends… you can see the signs that Pakistan’s political effort is knitting together somewhat from where it was a few weeks ago.”

– The Swat deal with the Taliban was a mistake. The Pakistani people “supported that deal very strongly, something like 74 percent,” but the Taliban “violated it … and that created a near panic, among some people.” So here’s the military operations, which Holbrooke says he’s “not in a position to report to you … frankly, I don’t really trust what I hear until the dust of battle settles.” But what is clear is that there are now 900,000 refugees, a figure that may grow to as many as 1,300,000. “Major, major refugee crisis. I think there’s a meeting going on right now about this downtown.” The United States. has given $57 million in emergency funds so far.

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