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Sensitive Holbrooke doesn't even want to mention the 'K word'

February 04, 2010 10:45 IST

Special United States Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, who was once speculated to be US President Obama's trouble-shooter to Kashmir, is so sensitive to creating an uproar in New Delhi if he speaks about Kashmir, that he doesn't even want to say the 'K word.'

On Wednesday, at a briefing at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, DC, asked about recent comments by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that a resolution of the Kashmir imbroglio is imperative to achieving peace in Afghanistan, Holbrooke asserted, "We are not going to negotiate or mediate on that issue, and I'm going to try to keep my record and not even mention it by name."

'But I want to be clear,' he said, 'that anything that the two countries (India and Pakistan) do to reduce tensions or improve relations will be something we would applaud and encourage.'

But Holbrooke reiterated that 'we are not going to act as intermediaries between Islamabad and New Delhi -- that is not what we are here to do. I'm not just talking about myself.'

When reminded about Mullen's comments, he said, "He's a close friend and colleague. We traveled together last year. We've planned a trip together this year, and I'm sure there's no disagreement between us."

Mullen, during a briefing on US National Security Update at the Foreign Press Center in December, said an outcome vis-à-vis a resolution of the Kashmir problem is imperative even while he lauded India's withdrawal of some of the security forces in the Valley.

In appreciating Pakistan's security concerns including on its eastern border with India and the rising militancy domestically, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, he said, "In the long run, the resolution of the border in the east in Kashmir is a very important outcome."

"Obviously, that is a principal concern to India and Pakistan," he argued, "but it is of concern to many others in terms of the stability in the region, and that's a key part of what needs to happen in the future."

When informed of the recent announcement by the Indian government of the reduction of troops from Jammu and Kashmir, Mullen said, "The adjustments that the Indians have proposed, and to the degree that they've been executed -- and I'm just not -- I'm not current on the level of execution right now, but certainly, executing those changes is a very positive step."

"The leadership -- the political leadership, the diplomatic leadership, the military leadership -- in both countries and in the region," he said, "needs to continue to encourage and also to respond to that."

Mullen reiterated, "I really do believe that de-tensioning that border is absolutely critical to the long-term stability in that region, and it's going to take outreach on the part of both countries. So, I'm very positively moved by the steps that Prime Minister (Manmohan) Singh's government has taken with respect to this."

The previous week, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees respectively, Mullen made a case for India and Pakistan to return to the negotiating table, although he did not make a case for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute as a panacea for stability in the region, as he did last week.

When he was asked at the time is there was any way, Pakistan could be persuaded to shed its India-focus, the top Pentagon official said, "India is a big player in that region as well. I think all of us -- international players, and particular regional players -- have to take steps to stabilise."

Last month, at an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, 'read my lips' was what Holbrooke implied when he said, "I am not working on that problem," on being asked by a Pakistani journalist if the Obama administration was 'serious to appoint any adviser to resolve this issue,' since the latter contended, "We all know that deep down, there is no solution of Afghanistan and South Asia problem, without resolving the Kashmir issue that is controlled by Indian government."

He asserted, "Let me be very clear. I am not working on that problem."

Holbrooke said, "I don't even mention the problem I am not working on. That's a game when I go to India -- and I go to India frequently and I look forward to going back soon because we keep the Indians very closely informed of our efforts, because India is hugely important factor here.'

"But, whenever that question comes up, your Indian journalistic colleagues try to get me to mention the 'K word' and I won't do it because everybody keeps saying that either I am secretly working on it, or I ought to be working on it," Holbrooke said.

Holbrooke acknowledged that 'we all know how important that issue is -- everyone knows it. And, it's a long tortured history. But, it's not what I do and it's not what the countries in the region expect me to do.'

On Tuesday, when asked what his take was on the evolving role of India in Afghanistan, and what his reaction was to the jostling between India and Pakistan vis-à-vis exerting greater influence in what happens in Afghanistan, Holbrooke replied: "India is part of the region -- the largest country in the region. And, although I have no responsibility for US-India relations, because of their great importance in these issues, I go to Delhi as often as I can.'

"I was there two weeks ago," he recalled. "I look forward to seeing Indian officials at the Munich Security Conference. And, there were Indians represented at the talks in London with whom I spoke."

Holbrooke argued that 'the Indians have a legitimate series of security interests in that region, as do a number of other countries, including, of course, Pakistan, China, and all the other countries that neighbour on Afghanistan.'

Thus, he said, "Any search for a resolution of the war in Afghanistan requires that the legitimate security interests of every country be understood and taken into account."

Image: US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC