Holbrooke absorbs sights, voices of troubled Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - He came, he saw, he listened, but Richard Holbrooke kept his own counsel on his maiden visit to Islamabad in his new role as U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Even as President Barack Obama’s troubleshooter rounded off a four day visit to Pakistan in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, trouble brewed in Afghanistan, his next destination.

Officials there said Taliban fighters who killed 26 people in Kabul in an attack on government buildings a day earlier had been exchanging text messages with their mastermind in Pakistan.

Holbrooke, best known for his work in Southeast Asia and the former Yugoslavia, is new to the region and needs to learn fast in order to come up with a fresh strategy to pacify Afghanistan and eliminate the al Qaeda threat from Pakistan.

Over the past few days Holbrooke met leaders of Pakistan’s 10-month-old civilian government, its generals, and journalists and analysts.

On Thursday, he held talks with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a popular opposition figure who is representative of Pakistan’s conservative mainstream and a frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy.

“There’s a change in approach toward Pakistan,” Sharif told a news conference, saying Holbrooke left a favorable impression of the Obama administration.

“They do give importance to the people of Pakistan and their emotions and that’s the feeling that I got from today’s meeting.”

Sharif said he discussed people’s anger at missile attacks launched by U.S. drones on militant targets in Pakistani territory, the Islamist insurgency spreading out of the tribal lands in the northwest, and strained relations with India in the aftermath of last November’s militant attack on Mumbai.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

Newspaper editorials took heart from signs the Obama administration would be more inclusive of Pakistan in setting strategy, though none expected a let-up in the hated missile strikes.

“The Americans are coming prepared to talk this time, rather than merely dictate and then walk away,” said an editorial in The News.


As part of that approach Holbrooke and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi will jointly lead an inter-agency team to improve intelligence sharing and strengthen security.

“Pakistan has to urgently review everything,” said Daily Times editor Najam Sethi, one of the journalists and politicians Holbrooke invited for dinner in Lahore on Wednesday evening.

“It must anticipate some of the policy initiatives the Obama administration is going to take,” Sethi said, adding, “the Americans are keen that in the next six months ... very concrete progress is made both in stabilizing Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Insecurity has worsened dramatically in Pakistan and many people blame their leaders for submitting to a U.S. agenda since joining the Washington-led “war on terror” in 2001.

Holbrooke got a taste of how bad things are in Pakistan, and will see more in Afghanistan and in India, where shock and anger over the slaughter of 179 people by Pakistani militants in Mumbai in November has still to die down.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

In Islamabad, Holbrooke probably glimpsed the fortress-like exterior of the Marriott Hotel, which has re-opened after a suicide attacker in a truck bomb killed 55 people, including three Americans, last September.

He saw the security lockdown along Constitution Avenue, the

thoroughfare where the National Assembly, the Presidency, various ministries, the Supreme Court and diplomatic enclave are located.

He went to Mohmand tribal region where Pakistani security forces have extended an offensive that began in August, just one conflict zone in an insurgency creeping toward Islamabad.

In Kabul, Holbrooke will see just why Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- a leader of proven bravery even if some of his countrymen wish he would stand up more firmly to Washington -- hasn’t “gotten out of his bunker,” as Obama remarked last year.

In India, Holbrooke will see ample evidence of an economy on the move, and one the United States looks on as a major partner for the future, but he’ll also find a country living in fear of a repeat of the attack mounted on Mumbai.

Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Kamran Haider; Editing by Jerry Norton