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Holbrooke Gets Sharif's View On Pakistan, Before Heading To Kabul

Richard Holbrooke in Islamabad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Richard Holbrooke, the new American envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has met former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore to get the mainstream conservative view of where the country was heading.

Often critical of U.S. policies, Sharif is one of the most popular politicians in Pakistan, and his stronghold is Punjab, the richest, most populous, and politically influential of Pakistan's four provinces.

Since his return from exile over a year ago, Sharif has met various American emissaries, but Washington has been wary of the two-time premier's conservatism and has wanted him to speak out more forcefully against Islamist militancy.

Holbrooke arrived in Islamabad on February 9 and has met with the political and military leadership of the country, and on February 11 visited Mohmand tribal region for a briefing on the strategy behind a 6-month-old offensive to drive militants out.

While he was there, a bomb attack in Peshawar killed a member of the Northwest Frontier Province assembly and wounded seven people in another demonstration of the extent of the Islamist insurgency in the region.

Pakistan complains that seven years of following a U.S. agenda in the war on terrorism has resulted in mounting insecurity, and allowed rival India to gain influence in Afghanistan, posing a threat of encirclement.

There has been no official word of his schedule, but Holbrooke is expected to go to Afghanistan later on February 12. He will arrive in Kabul a day after Taliban fighters killed 26 people in attacks on government buildings in the Afghan capital.

After Afghanistan, Holbrooke is expected to go to India.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, agreed in a telephone call on February 11 that a strategy was needed to try to resolve the region's problems.

The White House released a statement saying Obama had "expressed his support for Pakistan's democracy and his commitment to a strong partnership," especially on counterterrorism and economic development.

Earlier this week at his first presidential news conference, Obama said there was no doubt that terrorists were operating in safe havens in Pakistani tribal regions bordering Afghanistan and the United States wanted to make sure Islamabad was a strong ally in fighting that threat.

Looking For Influence

Many politicians believe the United States should be looking to engage conservatives from the mainstream, like Sharif, as they are more representative of popular sentiment.

Liberals see Sharif taking Pakistan further down a path of religious conservatism, with damaging consequences.

But they are also fearful that Zardari does not possess the charisma of his late wife, slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to win the "hearts and minds" of people in the struggle against militancy and religious extremism.

Sharif was barred from standing for election a year ago, due to his conviction for hijacking an airliner carrying General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 in the hours before a military coup brought the general to power.

While Musharraf became a valued American ally in the war on terrorism, Sharif was left to stew in exile in Saudia Arabia and London.

Sharif's party came second in the election that returned Pakistan to civilian rule in February last year.

But he gained more popularity after pulling out of the coalition government led by Zardari's party shortly after it was formed as Zardari backtracked on a promise to reinstate Supreme Court judges Musharraf had sacked earlier.

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case to overturn convictions against Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the governor of Punjab, though Sharif has refused to participate in the case as he does not recognize the legitimacy of the judges sitting at the Supreme Court.