Is Holbrooke’s “bulldozer” style working?
Dubbed the “bulldozer” for his tough guy tactics in Balkan negotiations, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been making waves in South Asia recently.
U.S. embassies in New Delhi and Kabul have been scrambling over the past week to deal with local fallout from statements made by Washington’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Statements that often go by unnoticed in Washington are parsed word for word in a region where there are deeply-held suspicions over U.S. intentions.
One such example is Holbrooke’s comments at a forum at Harvard last week where he was asked about re-integration efforts with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Holbrooke made clear — as he has many times before — that the United States was not in talks with the Taliban but offered up that almost every family of the southern Pashtun tribes had someone involved with the Taliban.
“There are plenty of indirect contacts between Pashtun on both sides – almost every Pashtun family in the south has family or friends who are involved with the Taliban – it’s in the fabric of society,” said Holbrooke in remarks released by his office.
Almost immediately, that comment went viral in Afghanistan and was seen by many as a slight to President Hamid Karzai, himself a Pashtun.
The issue came up at a news conference this week between Karzai and visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told a reporter that while he had a lot of respect for Holbrooke “that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, including that.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul put out a statement from Holbrooke almost immediately afterwards, saying he was merely reflecting Karzai’s own comments this year when he said “those Taliban who were not part of terrorist networks or al Qaeda are sons of the Afghan soil.”
“I was not suggesting that all Pashtuns are part of the Taliban or all Taliban are Pashtuns,” said Holbrooke.
Holbrooke has a testy relationship with Karzai and had several heated exchanges with him last summer after a fraud-laced election. Those tensions have eased in recent months, but diplomats say the two are not the best of friends.
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi has also tried to dampen an outcry that flared after Holbrooke told a news conference in Washington last week he did not believe recent attacks on guesthouses in Kabul were aimed at Indians.
“I don’t accept the fact that this was an attack on an Indian facility like the embassy. There were foreigners, non-Indian foreigners hurt,” Holbrooke said in the news conference at the State Department.
The statement caused a ruckus on the blogosphere and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi issued a “clarification” of Holbrooke’s remarks on its website.
“I regret any misunderstanding caused by my comments,” Holbrooke said. “I did not say Indians were not the target, but that initially it looked like the target was not an official Indian facility.”
Obama has called Holbrooke “one of the most talented diplomats of his generation,” but some are questioning whether his tough style works in South Asia.
“I think quiet diplomacy is the order of the day. This is not a Bosnia-type thing,” said a senior former diplomat, who declined to be named as his comments were critical of Holbrooke.
“Karzai just really does not like him. I hear the Pakistanis don’t like him either. They have acute sensitivities about being bullied by Americans,” added the diplomat.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley defended Holbrooke. “He remains the right person for the job,” said Crowley. “It’s a far-reaching and very complex challenge and Richard is managing it very skillfully.”
Photo credit: REUTERS/Nikola Solic (Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke talking by phone at a meeting of foreign ministers in Trieste)