Holbrooke in Pakistan: a sea change?

February 12, 2009

With Richard Holbrooke very much keeping his own counsel about his maiden visit to Pakistan, it’s been hard to assess quite how much change is to be expected from President Barack Obama’s new special envoy.

But a couple of early op-eds suggest that the change might be quite substantial. 

In the Indian Express, Indian analyst C. Raja Mohan writes that Islamabad’s  acknowledgement that at least part of the planning for last year’s Mumbai attacks could have taken place in Pakistan could be Holbrooke’s first success. “It will be difficult not to see the connection between Pakistan’s significant announcements on Mumbai and the U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke’s trip to the region this week and President Barack Obama’s call to (President Asif Ali) Zardari on Wednesday night,”  he says.

The crucial issue will be the extent to which Holbrooke can achieve the United States’ avowed aim of strengthening the civilian government in Pakistan, which many in India suspected of ceding much decision-making to the Pakistan Army after the Mumbai attacks. In admitting to a link to the Mumbai attacks, Raja Mohan says, Zardari appears to have taken a significant political risk.   

Picking up a similar theme, the New York Times quotes Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid as saying the high-profile visit by a civilian envoy could change the tone of the U.S. conversation with Pakistan (the traditional dominance of military-to-military contacts in the U.S. relationship with Pakistan has been criticised for enhancing the role of the Pakistan Army and undermining civilian governments.)

“This is a complete sea change in what Pakistan is used to,” the newspaper quotes him as saying. “There is a suspicion in the American establishment that the Pakistani Army has found it easier to pull the wool over the eyes of the American military. It will be harder to do that with the civilians.”

Given the multiple challenges facing Pakistan (this Indian website has a good round-up of the many cross-currents threatening to engulf the country), it’s perhaps a bit too tempting to hope for miracles from Holbrooke. But are we beginning to see signs of a real change in U.S. policy towards Pakistan? And if so, will it work, or turn out to be too little, too late?

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