Will Richard Hol­brooke's death im­pact US pol­icy?

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Claude Sal­hani

Richard C. Hol­brooke, Pres­i­dent Barak Obama's spe­cial en­voy to Afghanistan and Pak­istan - two very hot items for the cur­rent US ad­min­is­tra­tion - died ear­lier this week at age 69. Hol­brooke's un­ex­pected death leaves be­hind much un­fin­ished work in the re­gion. It also leaves mixed re­ac­tion to the work he has car­ried out in South Asia.

In his de­fense, how­ever, it is safe to say that his as­sign­ment was quite pos­si­bly one of the most dif­fi­cult and de­mand­ing jobs any­one in Washington could have had, given the in­tri­ca­cies and com­pli­ca­tions in the two coun­tries' pol­i­tics. Still, in the eyes of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion there was no doubt of this diplo­mat's abil­i­ties at car­ry­ing out US pol­icy un­der stren­u­ous cir­cum­stances. In­deed, the pres­i­dent gave him two of the thorni­est dossiers of the last decade or so.

Any­one who has ever set foot in ei­ther of the two coun­tries Hol­brooke was re­spon­si­ble for will tell you that there will hardly ever be any re­ally peace­ful set­tle­ment to ei­ther Pak­istan's or Afghanistan's prob­lems. The in­ter-tribal an­i­mos­ity and deep-rooted hated that per­me­ates Afghan and Pak­istani pol­i­tics goes back cen­turies. And no mat­ter how ex­pe­ri­enced and ag­ile a Western diplo­mat might be, given the his­tory in that re­gion, he stands lit­tle chance of forg­ing any real break­through.

Re­gard­less of what progress Hol­brooke may have ac­com­plished, or lack thereof, the White House called him a "gi­ant of diplo­macy." Though ac­cord­ing to US me­dia re­ports cit­ing sources in South Asia, the re­gion Hol­brooke was re­spon­si­ble for, the feel­ings held by the White House for Hol­brooke were not shared by the peo­ple on the ground.

In the Afghan cap­i­tal, Kabul, Hol­brooke was con­sid­ered some­what "out of touch with the so­ci­ety and too com­bat­ive to forge a mean­ing­ful part­ner­ship with Afghanistan's lead­er­ship," ac­cord­ing to the Los An­ge­les Times. Re­ports speak of much "bad blood" be­tween Hol­brooke and the govern­ment of Hamid Karzai. The Pak­ista­nis how­ever took a dif­fer­ent ap­proach, where the Amer­i­can diplo­mat was "lauded as a sea­soned en­voy who earnestly tried to strengthen Washington's frag­ile al­liance with the coun­try."

Yet de­spite the turmoil and up­heaval in both coun­tries, there re­mains a cer­tain amount of lu­cid­ity even among those who did not sup­port his tac­tics. Both Afgha­nis and Pak­ista­nis who dis­agreed with Hol­brooke think that his sud­den death could bring about a set­back in US for­eign pol­icy in the re­gion. A for­eign pol­icy de­scribed by one Amer­i­can news­pa­per as "wob­bly." Wob­bly is one way of look­ing at South Asia's pol­i­tics. An­other anal­ogy that comes to mind is the tango, where typ­i­cally dancers take one step for­ward and two steps back. Re­gard­less of how one looks at South Asian pol­i­tics, be it wob­bly or a tango, the fact re­mains that US pol­i­tics in this part of the world is a dif­fi­cult game to play given the great cul­tural dif­fer­ences that per­sist.

One prime ex­am­ple is the way each side looks at time. Amer­i­cans are typ­i­cally ob­sessed by time and want ev­ery­thing ac­com­plished as quickly as pos­si­ble. Most US ad­min­is­tra­tion's poli­cies are planned out on a four-year ba­sis, from one US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion ?to the next.

Amer­ica's de­trac­tors and foes on the other hand are un­der no such con­straints. The Taleban and Osama bin Laden have long ago thrown away their cal­en­dars and clocks. If they can project a vic­tory in 300 years they would be con­tented. Washington, by con­trast, tries to get pol­icy im­ple­mented in 30 days. The other great foe for Washington's ef­forts is the lack of continuity in for­eign af­fairs. Given that much changes with ev­ery new ad­min­is­tra­tion, many in the rest of the world have ac­cused Washington of suf­fer­ing from at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der when it comes to for­eign pol­icy.

With Hol­brooke gone and the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions now less than two years away, Washington has al­ready be­gun to go into re-elec­tion mode and chances of Hol­brooke be­ing re­placed be­fore 2012 are slim.

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