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U.S. Envoy Holbrooke Starts Three-Day Visit To Pakistan

Holbrooke is set to visit Peshawar in Pakistan's troubled northwest
Holbrooke is set to visit Peshawar in Pakistan's troubled northwest
Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has arrived in Islamabad at the start of a three-day visit.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry has said that Holbrooke will discuss with Pakistani leaders a "comprehensive strategy" to tackle militancy and extremism in the region.

Holbrooke told an international security conference in Munich on February 7 and 8 that to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, a new approach is required that must involve all of Afghanistan's neighbors, and Pakistan in particular.

In meetings with Pakistani leaders, both sides are expected to grapple with the complex problems posed by an expanding Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency.

Tariq Fatmi, Pakistan's former ambassador in Washington and Brussels, told RFE/RL that Pakistani leaders have welcomed Holbrooke's appointment, but are likely to press him to take their perspective into account.

"Washington has to recognize that the war on terror as pursued by the Bush administration has not only failed to achieve its objective in Afghanistan, but has resulted in the problem assuming alarming proportions for Pakistan as well," Fatmi said in a telephone interview from the Islamabad.

"Secondly, Washington has to appreciate that Pakistan now has a democratically elected government for which it may not be possible to agree to some of those [demands] that were made on it regularly when we had an authoritarian regime," he said.

Visit To The Frontier

To see the situation firsthand and to better understand the dynamics of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency in Pakistan, Holbrooke is expected to visit Peshawar, according to Pakistani media reports. The capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, Peshawar also serves as the administrative headquarters for the neighboring tribal areas that are directly controlled by Islamabad.

In Peshawar, regional analyst Khalid Aziz tells RFE/RL that recent attacks in the eastern Pakistani province of Punjab show that the insurgency has now expanded well beyond parts of the remote tribal regions on the Afghan border.

In relatively peaceful southern Punjab last week, some 30 people were killed in a suicide attack on a religious procession of Shi'ite Muslims.

In another attack over the weekend, seven policemen were killed as their security post was blown to pieces. Pakistani Taliban militants later accepted responsibility for both attacks.

Pakistani and U.S. officials have had sharply different perspectives in the past on the spread of militancy in Pakistan. Washington has complained about the lack of concerted Pakistani efforts to root out Taliban and Al-Qaeda sanctuaries on its soil and even questioned Pakistan's sincerity in fighting the extremists.

Pakistan, for its part, has seen U.S. drone attacks against alleged militant targets as "counterproductive," and warns that in some cases, those strikes push more people into the extremist fold.

Aziz said that Holbrooke's visit will give the United States and Pakistan an opportunity to reconcile such differences.

"Obviously this is an expanding insurgency; the militancy is ratcheting up," Aziz said. "The presence of Mr. Holbrooke will give an opportunity to the Pakistani and U.S. policy planners to get to grips with it."

Former Pakistani ambassador Fatmi says that Holbrooke is likely to hear from Pakistani leaders that he needs a broader regional effort to succeed in resolving the conflict now centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He adds that Pakistan's arch-rival India and other regional powers must facilitate such an approach.

"I think it would be to the long-term advantage of India, Pakistan, [and] Afghanistan. I would even broaden it to Iran, China, [and] Russia...for all these countries to sit down together and look at the problem in a less nationalistic and more regional approach," Fatmi said.

As a former ambassador himself, he recommends that even a seasoned diplomat such as Holbrooke should begin by listening intently.

"I would tell him to be patient and to be a good listener. Because in South Asia, these things matter...and a bit of deference and a bit of humility can take you far," he said.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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