Holbrooke: western Pakistan key to resolving Afghanistan war

The US special envoy told allies at the Brussels Forum that the Talibanization of the region was a top concern.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ahead of a key April 2 NATO meeting – and Barack Obama's first presidential trip outside North AmericaUS special envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke says that western Pakistan presents the chief problem in resolving an eight-year war that has divided allies and threatens the standing of an alliance ready to mark its 60th anniversary.

The Talibanization of west Pakistan, in the Swat region that borders Afghanistan, was the greatest surprise to envoy Mr. Holbrooke on his first fact-finding mission to the region last month. It was the top issue he relayed to Mr. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Holbrooke told the Monitor on the sidelines of the Brussels Forum, a security meeting here.

"A year ago, I visited Peshawar [near the Khyber Pass] and I was asked about starting an Asia Society office there," Holbrooke said. "Last month, people were afraid to go outside after dark and walk their dogs. The change in the situation was stunning. Geopolitically Afghanistan hasn't changed; Pakistan has."

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Holbrooke spoke at the Brussels Forum and meets here this week with NATO officials ahead of a much-anticipated Obama strategy for dealing with Afghanistan.

"The heart of the problem for the West is in western Pakistan," the envoy said. "But there are not going to be US or NATO troops on the ground in Pakistan. There is a red line for the government of Pakistan, and one which we must respect."

Holbrooke said the US had twice made "historic mistakes" by leaving – once after Soviet forces pulled out in the late 1980s, and again after the first campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2003. The Obama team will take a "regional" approach to the Afghan crisis – and will focus on training and building up the Afghan police force, which he said is "an inadequate and deeply corrupt organization … the weak link in the chain." The New York Times reported days ago that Obama anticipates boosting the Afghan police to 400,000 from current training levels of 82,000 troops. Holbrooke said the 400,000 figure was "speculative" but implied it would be "quite large."

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona warned European policymakers at the forum that "minimalist" approaches would be ineffective, and urged US and Europeans to engage in "straight talk" with their publics about a war where "the going will be extremely hard." He later told the Monitor that "it will take a lot more than the 17,000 troops [now being sent] to take care of this job." He added: "a group ... on this side of the Atlantic, and on the other side, want to get rid of as many terrorists as we can," and leave. "We need a long-term commitment."

The US is looking for more troops from a Europe leery of sending them. On March 31, Secretary Clinton will hold a "big tent" meeting at The Hague to further sort out the new Afghan strategy.

Holbrooke stated in Brussels, "We are not coming to Europe to hammer on individual countries. But additional troops will be needed. The idea that the US will demand … that era is over."

The new strategy, Holbrooke says, will attempt to bring in all the regional players – including Iran and China.

Holbrooke said some $800 million spent on poppy eradication – a source of Taliban funding – was "the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years."

Holbrooke said western Pakistan was filled with jobless young men paid more to join the Taliban than to fight with the Afghan Army, and that the Taliban "give them guns," a prized possession.

He also said that the Taliban-linked leader in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, has "set up 150 low-wattage FM stations … just like we saw in Rwanda," implying the stations are a key source of direction – and effective in convincing local populations that NATO is an occupation force. -

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