Richard Holbrooke, the late diplomat, would never have let relations between the United States and Pakistan decline to this level, his widow, Kati Marton, said on Friday. “The day after [Osama] bin Laden was killed, Richard would have been on a plane to Pakistan, and he would not have come home until the relationship was mended,” Marton, an author and journalist, told National Journal. “We never went for a walk in Central Park without calls coming in from Pakistan.”
“He knew not only the ISI [Pakistani intelligence] folks, but the generals and all the politicians and dissidents. He crawled into tents in refugee camps,” Marton said. “He wouldn’t have allowed [this] to happen.”
Marton was referring to the freeze in U.S.-Pakistan relations that began after the Obama administration’s raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad a year ago – tensions that may now pose the single biggest obstacle to ending America’s longest war. Nominally a U.S. ally, Pakistan has stepped up its support of violent extremists intent on attacking U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan and undermining stability there. But according to critics in the United States, Europe, and Pakistan, the issue is still being largely shunted aside by Washington out of fear, inertia, and a lack of a strategic vision on the part of the U.S. and NATO.
“It is a failure of diplomacy of the highest order, where we have had the lives of our people at stake,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the United Nations, told NJ for the cover story in this week’s issue, “Paralyzed by Pakistan.” In order to keep the Pakistanis even marginally cooperative, Khalilzad said, “I think frankly we have been too cautious and willing to pay too high a price.”
Before he was forced out of office last year, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani—who worked closely with Holbrooke—urged U.S. officials to adopt a “holistic” approach to the region that would help wean Pakistan from its military support of Islamists. It never happened. And today, rather than coming up with a new overarching strategic policy for Pakistan and the region that is commensurate with the deep commitments that President Obama and NATO have now made, Washington and other capitals continue to watch, helplessly, as a middle-sized developing country defies a superpower and the NATO alliance with virtual impunity.
“The Americans are completely paralyzed by this situation,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. A senior NATO official also laid the problem on the Americans. “It’s quite difficult at times to find a single U.S. policy on Pakistan, much less coordination with others.”
White House officials, responding to Marton’s comments, said on Friday that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is poor mainly because of “a series of events that were impossible to foresee but had nothing to do with our policy,” as one senior administration official put it. The incidents began with the diplomatic furor over a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis in early 2011 and culminated in the accidental NATO strikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops last November. That had nothing to do with “poor diplomacy,” the official said.
The administration’s paralysis has been evident in an intense, months-long debate over whether to issue an apology to Pakistan over the errant NATO strikes, even though several months have passed since the completion of an official Pentagon investigation that partially blamed mistakes made by U.S. forces for the incident, U.S. officials said. The State Department resurrected the idea earlier this year after repudiating the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, early on when he pressed for an immediate apology following the incident last November. But Obama, facing charges of appeasement from Mitt Romney, has hesitated.
Marton said that by the end of the summer of 2010, Holbrooke, before he died suddenly that December at the age of 69, had begun to grow confident that he could deliver a strategic vision for the region that would address the fundamental issues in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. “I think it was in August, when I caught him with a faraway look, the kind he had when he was working on something in his head. I said, ‘Richard what are you thinking about?’ He said, ‘I think I’ve got it. I think I can see how all the pieces can fit together.’ It looked like he was working a Rubik’s cube in his head…. The thing that keeps me awake some nights is that I’m not at all sure he had that conversation with the president.”
It’s not clear that would have made a difference, however. Widely acclaimed as one of America’s most masterful diplomats, having orchestrated the 1995 Dayton peace accord, Holbrooke was intensely frustrated by White House interference, according to observers inside and outside the administration. After being named Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, Holbrooke was said to have been curtailed by then-National Security Adviser James Jones and a coterie of close aides around Obama. This was especially true when Holbrooke sought to tackle the larger regional issues, in particular the tense relationship between India and Pakistan, which the Pakistani military and ISI use to justify their support of Islamist radicals. The White House denied his request to make India and specifically Kashmir part of his portfolio, although that disputed province, situated between Pakistan and India, has given birth to numerous Pakistan-supported jihadist groups. Nor did Holbrooke get support from the White House when he sought to confront Afghan President Hamid Karzai over corruption, critics say.