Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
Reading through some of the many thousands of words written about Richard Holbrooke, for me two stories stood out in their ability to capture what will be lost with his death:
The first was in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's obituary in the Washington Post:
"While beleaguered members of Mr. Holbrooke's traveling party sought sleep on transcontinental flights, he usually would stay up late reading. On one trip to Pakistan, he padded to the forward of the cabin in his stocking feet to point out to a reporter a passage in Margaret Bourke-White's memoirs of the time of India-Pakistan partition and independence. Bourke-White quoted Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling her that Pakistan would have no problems with the Americans, because 'they will always need us more than we need them.' Mr. Holbrooke laughed, saying, 'Nothing ever changes.'"
The second was in this 2009 profile by George Packer in The New Yorker.
Talking about Washington's approach to Pakistan, Holbrooke said, “The relationship with Pakistan is so fraught with a history of disappointment on both sides... We can’t align our interests exactly, because they live in a different space, and their history is defined by their relationship with India. . . . The one thing I believe we can do with Pakistan is to try to reach a strategically symmetrical view on the danger posed by Al Qaeda and its allies. That’s the proximate strategic goal.”
Put together, those comments cover a huge sweep of history and geography which explain why the war in Afghanistan is proving to be so intractable. While the military, and much of the media, focus on Afghanistan - since that is where western troops are deployed - Pakistan is fighting its own battle with India born out of the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
One of my Kabul press corps colleagues once described covering President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Western diplomats who are supposed to be supporting it as a lot like being friends with a couple while they go through a savage divorce. We reporters hop back and forth, from cocktail party to quiet lunch to private briefing, listening to charming Afghans and Westerners -– many of whom we personally like very much — say outrageously nasty things about each other. Usually, the invective is whispered “off the record” by both sides, so you, dear reader, miss out on the opportunity to learn just how dysfunctional one of the world’s most important diplomatic relationships has become.
Over the past few weeks, the secret got out. Karzai — in a speech that was described as an outburst but which palace insiders say was carefully planned — said in public what his allies have been muttering in private for months: that Western diplomats orchestrated the notorious election debacle last year that saw a third of his votes thrown out for fraud. The White House and State Department were apoplectic: “disturbing”, “untrue”, “preposterous” they called it. Peter Galbraith, the U.S. diplomat who was the number two U.N. official in Kabul during last year’s election, went on TV and said he thought Karzai might be crazy or on drugs. Karzai’s camp’s response: Who’s being preposterous now?