The South Asia Channel

Mr. Holbrooke, pick up the phone

Mr. Holbrooke, pick up the phone

By Ahsan Butt

Last weekend Richard Holbrooke made another visit to Pakistan in his capacity as Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than anything else, what struck me most about this was that Richard Holbrooke made another visit to Pakistan in his capacity as Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There do exist, after all, communication technologies that render the concept of distance between people obsolete. A recent report said that close to 40 percent of Americans hold jobs that could be done at home, communication with their office or headquarters left to digital devices and the like. Surely Holbrooke, whose primary task is to hold talks with stakeholders in South Asia, can be counted as amongst that 40 percent?

It is not just fuel costs which should push Holbrooke to reconsider his traveling. There are sound geostrategic reasons for doing so too.

Simply put, the United States remains deeply unpopular in Pakistan. In a survey released last May, the International Republican Institute – an organization that has been polling Pakistanis regularly for three years – reported that a mere 37 percent of respondents thought that Pakistan should cooperate with the U.S. in its so-called war on terror (to be fair, this was the highest reported percentage since February 2007).

More recently, a Pew survey revealed that only 9 percent of Pakistanis think of the U.S. as a partner, with 64 percent considering it an enemy. A Gallup/Al-Jazeera poll showed similar disenchantment with the U.S. A clear majority of respondents, 59 percent to be precise, consider the U.S. the greatest threat to Pakistan; the corresponding numbers for India and the Taliban were eighteen and eleven respectively.

Why does this matter? It matters because Pakistan’s leaders over the last five years, whether they are military rulers or elected civilians, have faced great difficulties in convincing the public that taking on the Taliban is in Pakistan’s national interest. Until very recently, the dominant line of thinking in Pakistan held that Pakistan was bullied into fighting America’s war in the border regions with Afghanistan under duress, that the Taliban would cease their campaign of bombings and violence against Pakistanis if Pakistan discontinued its alliance with the U.S., and that the billions of dollars that Washington sent Pakistan’s way was better thought of as blood money than aid to a beleaguered partner.

Notwithstanding the empirical questionability of these claims, they made it extremely difficult for Pakistani decision makers to launch aggressive action against armed militants in the north west of the country. Such action would surely result in the death of innocent civilians — as military action invariably does — as well as in the Pakistani military losing more men, which in turn would produce yet greater anger at the government.

Both Pervez Musharraf toward the end of his tenure, and Asif Zardari in the beginning of his, were constrained by public opinion in prosecuting the war against the Taliban with military means. This is not to argue that public opinion was the only factor in holding back more aggressive action, but it was among the more salient ones.

For a number of reasons, the Taliban’s popularity has fallen in recent months, which has made fighting and owning the war against the Taliban easier. Pakistanis are more likely to consider the Taliban a real threat and one worthy of tackling than ever before. But the charge of “America’s war” is still one that resonates for many, and just because Pakistanis now rightly see the Taliban as an enemy does not mean that they see the U.S. as a friend.

This is why it is important for Richard Holbrooke to maintain as low a profile as possible. During the Bush years, it became a running joke – think of it as the Muslim equivalent of a drinking game – to predict when Richard Boucher would make his next trip to Pakistan. Holbrooke is poised to break all of Boucher’s records; this weekend represented his fifth trip to Pakistan since his appointment as special envoy in January.

Every Holbrooke visit, and every follow-up press conference featuring a Pakistani diplomat telling the assembled media that Pakistan will do all it can to eradicate the terrorist threat, makes it easier to paint Pakistan’s leaders as marching to the tune of American drummers. If this is Pakistan’s war — and it is — then Pakistanis and Americans must act like it. As things stand, the monthly visits from American officials look too much like acts of lecturing and prodding rather than the symbols of close cooperation they are designed to be.

Given that Holbrooke can conduct his business over secure telephone lines or video conferencing (I don’t recommend Skype; the connection is often suspect), it behooves him and his office to consider doing more of it behind closed doors. Out-of-sight out-of-mind diplomacy promises the same benefits as the status-quo arrangement, without the appreciable P.R. costs of the latter. It is an option Holbrooke would do well to keep in mind.

Ahsan Butt is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago and contributes to the blog Five Rupees.