Is Holbrooke’s “bulldozer” style working?

March 12, 2010

Dubbed the “bulldozer” for his tough guy tactics in Balkan negotiations, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been making waves in South Asia recently.

holbrookeU.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)


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i think india needs to be proactive. pakistan is a mess. they have all the jihadi factories..they are flirting with taliban and other groups….i think india should not behave so responsibly and diplomaticaly.attack if there’s another strike.

pakistan requires a stick and they are needed to be sorted out …pakistan has a state sponsered terror policy. 1971 brought peace for 30 years .. i think india needs to settle the score ..and finish the unfinished buisness.

jinnah would not have thought in his dreams that pakistan will became the biggest JOKE of history..

today there is not even a single leader in pakistan who can bring peace to their country ..only false hopes from Mr 10%…

india will continue to grow and work towards a bigger,better india…peace in pakistan is not really necessary for india , but peace with india is necessay for pakistan…and that’s what is needed to be understood by pakis..

Posted by kanishka | Report as abusive

US is a failed state when it comes to foreign policy. It is only guns that is keeping US alive. Vietnam, Iraq, Phillipines, Cuba, Korea, Iran… Everywhere it is a big failure. US is a terrorist breeding nation.

Posted by Bharateey | Report as abusive

I think that Holbrooke is proving to be an unmitigated disaster for what passes for US Foreugn Policy in this region. His differences with Karzai are no secret and India too had reportedly ticked him off, albeit diplomatically, that he shouldn’t expect New Delhi to come to a standstill every time he visited Delhi, which was pretty often in the early days. Since then the man has kept his distance now he needs to keep his tongue in check.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

Holbrooke probably has never seen anything like the problem in the Af-Pak region. This is much worse than the Balkan crisis that he handled so well. Holbrooke entered the scene after the roof had caved in. Eight years of neo-con rule simply made things worse for this region as the priorities shifted towards an unnecessary war in Iraq. Holbrooke inherited a problem that has been allowed to fester. Considerable damage had been done by the time Obama and Holbrooke took over the case in this region. They have been careful in not making things worse. This is a very difficult project to handle and Holbrooke needs sympathy and support. With the global economic crisis, things have turned for the worst. Time has become limited and there is increasing domestic pressure against the war, the exodus of allies like the Dutch are making things even more complicated. Holbrooke is a diplomat and he has to do things behind the scenes compared to the military personnel. We need to be patient with him and I am sure he will find a workable solution.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

It is no secret that Holbrooke has failed and failed miserably in his Af-Pak mission. Niceties aside, it is reasonable to guess that he will not do a miracle if he has not done so far. With so many players in South Asia, Af-Pak is a totally different beast than his Balkan Peace mission.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

The Taliban is like 99.9% Pashtu. It’s time we stop thinking of the Taliban as an entity that exists in a nation-state free vacuum. Al Quaeda may exist regardless of nationality but the Talbian does not. Let feathers ruffle about it. The truth hurts less than the destruction of Pakistan or failure in Afghanistan.

Posted by Matamoros | Report as abusive

Holbrooke is the member of clintonian group of jewish advisers who were grouped together by the jewish lobbyists to handle the US foreign policies. Despite negotiations with the Balkan parties the Balkan war could not be avoided. Was this a success? The clintonian policies being practiced in muslim countries were by and large failures and is now a disaster under Hillary’s leadership. My prognosis is that Hillary Clinton will be forced to leave the office with her team before the full term is expired. Mr Obama is a clever operator, giving enough rope to the lady so that she can take her rag tag team and leave the foreign office through the back door.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

@The Taliban is like 99.9% Pashtu.”
Posted by Matamoros

–Ask the opposite–how many Pashtuns are Taliban? The figure will not be this striking.

It is like saying LeT is like 99.9% Pakistanis. True.
But only a fraction of Pakistanis are LeT. I am not making comparison between Taliban and LeT fractions.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

Not entirely related but… Holbrooke will fakap in afpak while bob cut frustrated lady Clinton fails in Mid East and doubtful origins Hussein Obama fails everywhere… Mid East, AfPak, Korea, China etc.

Posted by Bharateey | Report as abusive

Let us not forget the black magic bag which Mr Obama inherited from his kenyan father. After all he did succeed in his health reforms, where the lady failed. He is two to zero with clinton now and the black magic could bring him further success in other fields as well. Let us wait, no more criticism as yet.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

correction is in order. The Taliban is now the name for the Pashtoon resistance group with very strong tribal leadership. The LeT is made up of individual kashmiris from the indian occupied kashmir. Call them insurgent indians or kashmiris but do not make them Pakistanis. Israel has been following the same strategy with the palastinians.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive