Holbrooke begins 'listening tour'

The special representative launched his three-day visit in Pakistan Tuesday with an aim to 'listen and learn,' but also to urge the US ally to eliminate its militant havens.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Orientation: Richard Holbrooke listened to Pakistan's foreign minister Tuesday as part of a three-day visit.
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Richard Holbrooke, the veteran US diplomat tapped to help stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan, began his tour of the region in Islamabad Tuesday. The special representative vowed to "listen and learn" as he met with leaders of the US ally, with whom relations have been strained by US concerns that it's not doing enough to stem a growing militancy that is spilling into neighboring Afghanistan and India.

On Day 1 of Mr. Holbrooke's three-day visit in Pakistan, leaders who met with him – including President Asif Ali Zardari, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani – presented their own concerns over America's approach in the so-called war on terror, particularly its drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

"I am here to listen and learn" in "this critically important country," Holbrooke said in a statement. "The United States looks forward to reviewing our policies and renewing our commitment and friendship with the people of Pakistan."

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Holbrooke, who is best known for his part in bringing an end to the Balkans conflict in 1995, arrives in the country at a precarious time. The Pakistani Army is battling militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in the nearby Swat Valley, 100 miles from Islamabad. The fighting could displace as many as 600,000 people within weeks, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday.

A slew of kidnappings has underscored Pakistan's deteriorating security situation: On Sunday a video emerged apparently showing the beheading of abducted Polish engineer Piotr Stanczak by Pakistani militants. It was the first execution of a Western hostage since the killing of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in 2002.

Meanwhile, Pakistan and India remain at odds over suspected attackers in the Nov. 26 Mumbai (formerly Bombay) attacks. On Monday Pakistani security officials said they needed more evidence from India to try the suspects it has in custody.

Holbrooke arrives at an urgent time for US efforts in Afghanistan, whose security is threatened by militants who can find haven in Pakistan. A recent poll found that 32 percent of Afghans believe US and NATO forces are performing well, down from 68 percent in 2005. Some 36 percent blame the country's problems on the US, NATO, or the Afghan government, compared with 27 percent who blame the Taliban, although the Taliban are viewed as the greater long-term threat.

During this trip Holbrooke would try to convey to Pakistan that allowing havens along its Afghan border hurts both Islamabad and Washington, President Obama told reporters at a news conference Monday. It's "not acceptable" to have people in that region who will act "with impunity" to kill innocent people.

For his part, Mr. Qureshi welcomed Holbrooke's trip as marking a "new beginning" in US-Pakistani relations.

Topping Pakistan's concerns is an end to drone attacks, which the government says fuel sympathy for the militancy and hamper the fight against the Taliban. The airstrikes, which have been used with growing frequency since August, have killed at least 130 civilians. "We look forward to a frank discussion on the issue," Qureshi told reporters Tuesday.

Financial assistance may also figure in talks. Pakistan needs more aid, says retired Army general and political analyst Talat Masood, in the form of the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones project and Kerry-Lugar Bill.

Pakistani officials are also expected to make a fresh case for greater US involvement in resolving its dispute with India over Kashmir. The Himalayan territory claimed by both countries is widely seen as a raison d'être for many militant groups in Pakistan, says Badar Alam, a senior editor for monthly news magazine Herald.

But Kashmir was officially "never part of [Holbrooke's] portfolio," according to State Department spokesman Robert Wood. Though Obama had floated the idea of naming a special envoy to Kashmir before his election, calling the territory key to regional stability, that idea was scrapped under Indian pressure.

Holbrooke will leave Pakistan for Afghanistan Thursday, then visit India.

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