The appointment of a Senior Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan is a welcome development that should help fulfill a long-standing need to better integrate U.S. policy toward these two key countries. It will be helpful to have the focused attention of a senior official who is neither attached to the Embassy in Afghanistan nor the Embassy in Pakistan to bring these two countries together to counter the Taliban/al-Qaeda threat that spans both countries. Part of the problem of dealing with terrorism in South Asia over the past seven years has been the tendency of the U.S. bureaucracy to stovepipe the issues of Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than seek comprehensive solutions to advance U.S. interests in the region.
The appointee for the post, Richard Holbrooke, has a reputation as a tough negotiator — an asset in the region, so as long he takes time to understand the complex relationships and history of South Asia. U.S. diplomacy in Islamabad could use a slightly tougher edge. Washington has failed in the past to leverage our large amounts of assistance to Pakistan in a way that convinces Islamabad to adopt an unambiguous stance toward the Taliban and other extremist groups operating from its territory, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the recent attacks in Mumbai.
The idea of establishing an Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy is not new. The Afghanistan Freedom and Security Support Act, H.R. 2446, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007, called for the “appointment of a special envoy to promote closer cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.” A September 2008 report by the Pakistan Policy Working Group titled “The United States and Pakistan: The Next Chapter,” also noted the need to transform the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border from “hostile frontier into an economic gateway” by assigning “primary responsibility for coordinating and implementing Pakistan-Afghanistan policy to a senior U.S. official.”
There had been earlier speculation that Holbrooke’s brief might center around the issue of Kashmir, which would have been a grave mistake. Fortunately, the Obama team seems to have recognized the key to stabilizing Afghanistan does not lie in resolving Kashmir as some have recently tried to assert (the British Foreign Secretary stated in a recent op-ed that “Resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders.”) Such thinking is misguided and naive. It overlooks the fact that hardliners in Pakistan have sought to use violent attacks in Kashmir to bring international attention to the issue, and thus raising the specter of an international role in the dispute could actually fuel support for violence.