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January 27, 2009

How Holbrooke will succeed


January 27, 2009

The writer is an independent political economist

It took President Barack Obama less than 48 hours to begin to live up to his promise of a renewed diplomacy out of Washington DC. On the second day after assuming office, President Obama visited the US State Department and watched over his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she introduced two special emissaries for America's grandest foreign-policy headaches: the Middle East and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The Obama administration's proactive interest in these regions, and the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, should be seen as a demonstration of good intentions. Holbrooke is a career foreign service man with the distinction of having brokered the Dayton peace agreement. American objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan shall now be pursued with a strength and intensity that George W Bush's war-for-profit machine was simply incapable of mustering. While we all have a right to be excited about the emergence of statesmanship and integrity at the White House--Americans, Pakistanis and Afghans--we should dial down expectations It would be a mistake to be overly optimistic about what Obama and a renewed commitment to American soft power will mean for them.

Holbrooke has been given a mission that is as obtuse, intractable and abstract as the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are. There are two key aspects to Holbrooke's mission. The first is administrative, and the second is political.

Administratively, Holbrooke is coordinator-in-chief. He has been assigned to, essentially, streamline US policy and actions in the region that are currently all over the place. There are multiple agencies involved with multiple agendas and deeply divided missions. As the special representative himself said, his job is "to help coordinate a clearly chaotic foreign assistance programme, which must be pulled together."

The special

representative is being coy. In fact, the administrative challenge of cohering US policy and action in Afghanistan and Pakistan is much more difficult. Anticipating the impending reform storm, Daniel Markey at the Council of Foreign Relations described the situation as follows, "Four different US military commands (EUCOM, PACOM, SOCOM, and CENTCOM) now play significant roles in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. Add NATO and the United Nations to Afghanistan; then stir in the toxic mix of turf battles between the State Department, USAID, the CIA, the Pentagon, and a range of other US agencies; and you start to get a flavour for the coordination problems we (Americans) face."

Politically, Holbrooke is negotiator-in-chief. He has been assigned with the task of engaging the Pakistani and Afghan governments in a multi-stakeholder dialogue that leads to regional peace and stability. There are two implicit conditions that the US has, for it to be satisfied with the eventual situation. The first is the elimination of Al Qaeda as a viable source of violence anywhere, thereby the virtual termination of Al Qaeda. The second is the transformation of Pakistan's national security paradigm, from one focused on India to one focused on terrorism.

Here too, the special representative has thus far chosen to be coy. In his remarks at his introduction to the State Department, Holbrooke did what President Hamid Karzai has been asking the US to do for at least three years, and what the Pakistani military establishment has been asking the US to do for over six years--distinguish between Al Qaeda, and the Taliban--and clarify that the only non-negotiable enemy in the War on Terror is Al Qaeda. Holbrooke's clarity about the enemy was followed up by this telling reflection about Pakistan: "In Pakistan the situation is infinitely complex, and I don't think I would advance our goals if I tried to discuss it today."

If the special representative wants to be truly special and truly effective, he will need to ensure that he does not focus on the "infinitely complex" nature of his subject matter. Instead, there are three relatively simple things that Special Rep. Holbrooke will need to consider as he deals with the challenges of his new job: a new approach to reform, an exit strategy and engaging the middle class.

First, forget reforming the interagency dysfunction across multiple federal agencies of the US government working in South Asia. The real need for public sector reform is not in Washington DC, but in Kabul and Islamabad. The absence of rule of law, and the perception that you have no chance to being treated fairly no matter what you do, if you are a poor Afghan or a poor Pakistani, is a more dangerous threat to South Asian stability and US security than any interagency competition within the US government. Holbrooke needs to meet the author of the 2007 UN Human Development Report for Afghanistan, Dr Ali Wardak, to get a sense of what kinds of ideas exist to help improve access to justice in Afghanistan. He needs to meet lawyers like Osama Siddique and activists like Samad Khurram to understand why Pakistan's justice sector cannot be reformed without restoring the judiciary.

Public sector reform, however, isn't just about headline political issues, or about academic notions of how things can be improved. It is about backing up fancy new organograms and oodles of USAID money, with real political gumption. Other than the International Republic Institute (IRI) surveys on Pakistan and the Asia Foundation's surveys on Afghanistan, how do the Americans figure out what's politically saleable and what's not? One way is to talk to elected Pakistanis, rather than unelected ones, and to insist that they use translators and speak in the language they are most comfortable in. Holbrooke will lose less in translation than he will in bad English that produces wildly inaccurate accounts of how Pakistani leaders really feel.

Another entry point for Holbrooke is Pakistani mayors. Though indirectly elected, mayors (nazims, as they are called here), have the eyes and ears of hundreds of directly elected councillors. The best examples of American public sector reform all come from innovative and powerful mayors, like Rudy Guiliani who reformed New York City's police culture, and Stephen Goldsmith, who, during the 1990s, transformed the meaning of public sector efficiency with his administrative genius in Indianapolis. Yet, instead of searching for the Pakistani Stephen Goldsmith, Pakistan's tunnel-vision bureaucrats have deceived the Punjab chief minister into restoring the regressive commissioner system in Pakistan's most important and largest province.

Second, Holbrooke needs an American exit strategy. He needs to understand that because of physical insecurity, and the State Department's inability to have its fine young men and women roam the streets of Kandahar and Karachi, the two most important instruments of American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan are physical coercion and money. Yet both these instruments often do more damage than good. There's no doubt that the constant threat of punitive military action is required in Afghanistan. Yet the presence of what may eventually constitute over 100,000 foreign, mostly American, soldiers in Afghanistan is a recipe for continued instability in the country. Holbrooke knows this, as he eloquently points out in the Foreign Affairs journal in the September/October 2008 issue. He says, "…as the war enters its eighth year, Americans should be told the truth: it will last a long time--longer than the United States' longest war to date, the 14-year conflict (1961-75) in Vietnam." All the aid and development money in the world cannot heal the wounds of Pakhtun pride, which smarts from the constant presence of foreigners on its soil--be they from any religious or national background. Most importantly, the US taxpayer simply does not represent a bottomless pit of money. If fear and trepidation is not going to be Obama's domestic agenda--and it seems unlikely that it will--then Afghanistan simply cannot be an open-ended military base for Americans. It is politically, fiscally and administratively impossible.

Finally, Richard Holbrooke must understand that in Afghanistan and Pakistan "engaging the elite" has been a miserable failure of a policy for Western powers. Over 200 years of engaging the elite here--generals, politicians, warlords, landlords and mullahs--has failed to produce the kind of emancipative democracy that is the birthright of every human being, not just every American. The Afghan and Pakistani elite make for great conversation, and they smell and sound "just like us (Americans)." But they are not just like Americans. They are illiberal, they are illegitimate, and they are the tallest wall between security for American citizens and the world we live in now. Engaging Pakistan's emerging urban middle class, its accountants, artists, historians, doctors, computer nerds, architects and, yes, without question, its lawyers, is the surest, straightest and most honest road out from under the rubble of FATA and towards success for the special representative.

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