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Holbrooke: Ruthless in search for peace in S Asia

By M K Bhadrakumar
December 14, 2010 13:39 IST
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Richard HolbrookeRichard Holbrooke, who passed away on Monday, was probably inching toward his complete lifetime achievement -- as the architect of peace in Afghanistan and in South Asia, says M K Bhadrakumar

A major difference between the Indian and American practice of diplomacy is that while we are largely complacent with 'management' of problems, including bleeding problems, and almost succeed in making them look deceptively mundane issues, American diplomacy doggedly focuses on 'solutions'.

Indian diplomats often get away with their paucity of ideas by hiding behind Chanakya, the epitome of wisdom of an ancient age that by far predates today's information era and is of dubious value in contemporary life. There have been exceptions, of course -- J N Dixit, for instance. But they can be counted on the finger-tips. 

Arguably, one vacillates at this point. Who else other than Dixit to count on the finger-tips?

The result is plain to see. India is littered with debris in its neighbourhood, even right on its doorstep and we either pretend we don't see it or are stoical about it.

However, as India progresses on the path of an emerging power and aspires to secure the 'global commons' at a not-too-distant future, this won't do. India needs diplomats of the calibre of Richard Holbrooke who could be sent out there into the far, wide world to savagely carve out the flesh and blood of international politics with the scalpel of Indian interests.

No matter the manner in which Holbrooke did it in the former Yugoslavia, the fact remains that the result has been fantastic for the advancement of the United States' interests in the Balkans.

Yugoslavia would have held out like a lump on the throat of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation without the Russians being kicked out of its Slavic backyard and without fastening the Adriatic as the alliance's placid lake.

Holbrooke indeed left his mark on the post-Cold War era. The Dayton Accords was his finest hour. But there has always been a lurking suspicion, as the Randy Backman rock song would say, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet."

I, for one, would have wagered that Holbrooke was probably inching toward his complete lifetime achievement -- as the architect of peace in Afghanistan and in South Asia.

From the Indian viewpoint, his trajectory in the search of peace in Afghanistan might appear highly hazardous but that is because of the blinkers our guys wear in not perceiving early enough in time that the Taliban are an irreplaceable fixture in any viable architecture in the Hindu Kush mountains.

The fact remains that despite India's profound experience with Islam through centuries, most Indian strategic analysts, especially the fellow-travellers of the establishment, have an intellectual difficulty (and an emotional block) in differentiating the various categories of political Islam, the cardinal difference between traditional Islam and modern-day Al Qaeda, and the fine line that distinguished religiosity from religious extremism.

With his razor-sharp intellect, although a westerner, Holbrooke saw from a very early stage the strategic importance of reconciling the Taliban.

But as any gifted diplomat would know, he knew diplomacy begins first at home -- in winning the turf wars in the corridors of power in Washington and getting the power centres to come to the difficult realisation that the war in the Hindu Kush is quintessentially a fratricidal strife and the US as such had nothing to fear from the Taliban.

Holbrooke won the first round hands down -- helped to an extent, of course, by the growing war fatigue and the regime change in Washington by 2009 -- and then hurried to the second round -- selling the idea to the international community.

The London conference in January sealed that process. Even Delhi fell in line. There is no voice today in the international community that seriously challenges the home truth that there cannot be durable peace without accommodating the Taliban.

Holbrooke was just about shifting gear for the uphill climb from the valley to the hill top -- entering the third phase of his adventurous odyssey for peace -- when death stuck.

He was brilliantly succeeding, as WikiLeaks testify to an extent, in compelling the Pakistanis -- overcoming their obstinacy of a closed mind -- to rethink on the efficacy of peace in Afghanistan. Holbrooke knew it was an uphill task and needed to be gone about in a fundamentally different way than with the 'junkyard dogs' in the Balkans -- by winning the confidence of the Pakistanis.

One plus point for him was that the Indian leadership was willing to play ball by rolling back its historic propensity to beat war drums and by incrementally assuaging the Manichean fears in Pakistan regarding the Indian intentions in Afghanistan.

Simply put, Holbrooke wanted Delhi to keep quiet and desist from raising Pakistani hackles in Afghanistan. Without appearing as a loss of face, the Indian establishment has done precisely that.

Holbrooke most certainly knew that at the penultimate phase of his diplomatic adventure he would have to turn to India-Pakistan relationship. But he had to factor in the Indian sensitivities about not overtly accepting US mediation.

Actually, a delicate process had just about begun in this direction -- making Pakistan and India stakeholders in a US regional Silk Road project, getting the moribund back-channel to revive on Kashmir, and calibrating in bits and pieces a historic transformation as had happened in Europe after World War II when adversaries who fanatically held on to animosities finally saw the futility of their fanaticism and began realising that there is more to life than wars and quarrels, when they moved into a common home where territorial boundaries ceased to be of much consequence.

The audacity of the US project is self-evident and it is integral to the US's global strategies. Today, the odds are equally balanced.

Unfortunately, Holbrooke's departure comes at a most sensitive juncture. We were probably just about approaching the tipping point and he should have lived for another year or two.

The Barack Obama administration will be hard-pressed to find a substitute for Holbrooke. If anyone can handle the tough assignment it could be Ambassador James Dobbins who is currently the head of international and security policy for the Rand Corporation.

Dobbins led the delicate negotiations that fructified at the Bonn conference in December 2001. He knows the Afghan protagonists, how difficult they can be and yet how easily they reconcile.

He is savvy with the Iranians, he knows the Russians both in the State Department and as ambassador in Brussels. He certainly knows the art of the possible in politics, he was, after all, in the thick of conflict resolution in Kosovo and Bosnia.

But Dobbins will have to start from the beginning in winning the hearts and minds of the Pakistanis. He will have to reassemble his team. Holbrooke was a man of strong likes and dislikes.

And time disfavours Dobbins insofar as he will have to run from the second he touches the ground. Least of all, the AfPak arena in Washington has become a veritable snake pit and even Holbrooke with his acute survival instincts barely coped with the poisonous environs.

The tragedy for our region will be if Holbrooke's departure shifts the equilibrium of the Obama strategy in Afghanistan inexorably toward David Petraeus' thesis. The Republicans adore Petraeus and these are extraordinary times when Obama is under duress to listen to their wishes quite a lot.

Image: Richard Holbrooke greets Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao as External Affairs Minister S M Krishna looks on during the Kabul conference in the Afghan capital in July, 2010. Photograph: Jay Mandal/On Assignment.

Also read: US mourns 'a true giant' Holbrooke's demise

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M K Bhadrakumar