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How Obama avoided a 'misguided policy blunder'

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | January 23, 2009 13:02 IST

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Wisely skirting a prospective foreign policy pitfall, United States President Barack Obama [Images] on Thursday appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, shelving the controversial idea of appointing an envoy for South Asia.

On the second day of his presidency, Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [Images], announced two special envoys for Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Sources told rediff.com that during the foreign policy discussions that took place during the transition process, experts had suggested that the Obama administration drop the idea of appointing a special envoy for South Asia. They had pointed out India's strong objections to such an appointment, due to apprehensions about raking up the contentious issue of Kashmir, in which New Delhi [Images] does not want third party mediation.

According to the sources, US Ambassador [Images] to India David Mulford had also advised the new administration that the matter could hit ties between New Delhi and Washington.

India would interpret a South Asian envoy's appointment as America renewing its efforts to resolve the Kashmir issue, experts in South Asian politics told the Obama government.

Speaking at the ornate Ben Franklin Room at the US State Department, in the presence of over 400 guests, Obama and Clinton announced that former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell would be the special representative to the Middle East while former career diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the erstwhile US ambassador to the United Nations, would be the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After Middle East, said Obama, 'another urgent threat to global security is the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.' He described this region as 'the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.'

Obama predicted, 'There will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.'

Holbrooke, whom Obama described as 'one of the most talented diplomats of his generation,' said he would get to the region as quickly as possible 'and report back to the secretary, the vice-president and the president.'

He emphasised, 'We fully respect the fact that Pakistan has its own history, its own traditions, and it is far more than the turbulent dangerous tribal areas on its western border. And we will respect that.'

Acknowledging the magnitude of his assignment, Holbrooke said, 'Nobody can say the war in Afghanistan has gone well, and yet, as we speak here today, American men and women and their coalition partners are fighting a very difficult struggle against a ruthless and determined enemy without any scruples at all -- an enemy that is willing to behead women who dare to teach in a school to young girls, an enemy that has done some of the most odious things on Earth.'

And referring to Al Qaeda [Images], which enjoys safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Area in Pakistan, he said, 'Across the border, lurks the greater enemy still -- the people who committed the atrocities of September 11, 2001.'

Lisa Curtis, former South Asia analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, welcomed the appointment of a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

She had earlier warned that a special envoy to South Asia, who attempted to address the Kashmir dispute, would be a misguided policy blunder.

She said Holbrooke's appointment "should help fulfill a long-standing need to better integrate US policy toward these two key countries."

"It will be helpful to have the focused attention of a senior official who is neither attached to the embassy in Afghanistan nor the embassy in Pakistan to bring these two countries together to counter the Taliban [Images]/Al Qaeda threat that spans both countries," she explained.

Curtis argued that part of the problem "of dealing with terrorism in South Asia over the past seven years has been the tendency of the US bureaucracy to stovepipe the issues of Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than seek comprehensive solutions to advance US interests in the region."

She acknowledged that Holbrooke "has a reputation as a tough negotiator -- an asset in the region, as long as he takes time to understand the complex relationships and history of South Asia."

Curtis felt that "US diplomacy in Islamabad [Images] could use a slightly tougher edge," particularly since Washington "has failed in the past to leverage our large amount of assistance to Pakistan to make Islamabad adopt an unambiguous stance toward the Taliban and extremist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba [Images], which is responsible for the recent attacks in Mumbai [Images]."

"Fortunately," she noted, "the Obama team seems to have recognised that the key to stabilising Afghanistan does not lie in resolving Kashmir, as some have recently tried to assert."

She took a swipe at British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who had stated in a recent op-ed in The Guardian newspaper that "resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders."

Terming Miliband's opinion as "misguided and naive," she argued, "It overlooks the fact that hardliners in Pakistan have sought to use violent attacks in Kashmir to bring international attention to the issue, and thus raising the spectre of an international role in the dispute could actually fuel support for violence."






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