Page last updated at 11:22 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

US envoy weighs Afghan challenge

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News, Brussels

Richard Holbrooke: "Neglect was what happened in the past - that era is over"

Washington's much anticipated strategic review of Afghan and Pakistan policy is now on President Barack Obama's desk and is expected to be made public in days.

It will send the clearest signal yet of how the new administration will tackle what it views as its biggest security threat.

"I can guarantee you that this administration will do everything it can to succeed in one of the most difficult situations in the world," emphasised the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

In a BBC interview in Brussels, Ambassador Holbrooke with his trademark bluntness dismissed as "journalist gobbledygook" reports that the United States would now be scaling down its goals.

"Neglect is what happened in the past. That era is over."

'Civilian surge'

There has been speculation for months about Washington's new focus in a nearly eight-year-old war it now recognises it is not winning.

It takes a long time to build a health clinic or school... But it takes a nano second to blow up that school or behead a teacher
US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke

In January, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates expressed concern "the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far in the future". More recently, Vice-President Joe Biden spoke of "clear and achievable goals".

But Ambassador Holbrooke stressed there would be "more troops, more resources, more high-level attention."

President Obama has already announced an extra 17,000 US troops, adding to 38,000 US soldiers already on the ground in Afghanistan along with 30,000 more from Nato armies and allies.

Hundreds more civilian advisers are also to be sent in what is being called a "civilian surge".

But Ambassador Holbrooke admitted security threats would impede their work.

"It's wonderful to build a health clinic or school. It takes a long time and resources. But it takes a nano second to blow up that school or behead a teacher."

He said he was working closely on these issues with General David Petraeus, the top commander for US forces across the region.

The veteran diplomat, known for a tough style of diplomacy that helped end the Bosnian war in the 1990s, admitted his new job was "the hardest thing I have ever done".

Taleban sanctuaries

He made it clear the "number one problem" in stabilising Afghanistan was Taleban sanctuaries in western Pakistan, including tribal areas along the Afghan border and cities like Quetta.

Armed tribesmen gather at the site of a suspected US missile strike at Jani Khel, northwest Pakistan 16 March, 2009
Pakistan has reacted angrily to US drone strikes in tribal areas

"Quetta appears to be the headquarters for the leaders of the Taleban and some of the worst people in the world," which he said includes the leader of the Pakistani Taleban Baitullah Mehsud.

"As we speak, they are planning further attacks" on the West and the region itself, he said.

Sources say Washington's main concern is now the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan. But it knows the risks of operating in a restive area where anti-American sentiment runs high.

"It's tough," conceded Washington's envoy. "You can't send troops into Pakistan. That's a red line."

He refused to confirm or deny reports that the US is now considering an expansion of its covert war into areas around Quetta.

Missile strikes carried out by the CIA's unmanned drones have so far been limited to targets in the tribal areas.

Pakistan responded to these reports by saying such a move would be "counter-productive" and could provoke a political backlash.

Observers believe the reports may have been leaked to put pressure on Pakistan itself to do more.

Regional expert Ahmed Rashid, whose new book Descent into Chaos is widely read by members of the Obama administration, says the US has "far fewer options" in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.

"There are indications international aid will be far less than Pakistan expects as long as the Taleban advance," he added.

Double game

Asked about persistent reports that elements in the Pakistan military may be playing a double game by supporting elements of the Taleban, Ambassador Holbrooke said: "We have heard these charges. We have talked to Pakistani leaders about them. Obviously, to the extent there is truth to them, we would be very, very concerned."

The Taleban cannot control the cities and the Afghan government has trouble in much of the countryside
US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke

As for the new political mantra - talking to the Taleban - he expressed scepticism about phrases like "moderate Taleban".

Referring to some as "farmers by day, fighters by night", he insisted the majority of fighters did not follow the precepts of the Taleban leader Mullah Omar.

But he said conflicting reports that Mullah Omar himself may support dialogue was a "mysterious issue" they were "trying to learn more about".

He stressed it was a "reconciliation" programme and a very important part of the strategic review.

The Afghan government is now playing a leading role in this process but sources say the CIA may eventually play a greater part in reaching out to elements in the Taleban.

But there are still many questions over who can be brought over, and how.

Washington's first envoy to this region dismissed "wildly over-optimistic" reports about who was prevailing, saying the Taleban was not winning but neither were Nato armies.

"The Taleban cannot control the cities and the Afghan government has trouble in much of the countryside," said Mr Holbrooke.

He described the position of Nato forces like "putting your fist into water. Pull out your fist. The water re-forms."

Level field

Ambassador Holbrooke also took pains to make clear Washington was working with elected leaders such as Afghanistan's President Karzai and Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari.

Richard Holbrooke and Hamid Karzai in Kabul, 15 Feb 2009
President Karzai had Western backing in the 2004 elections

In private, officials have expressed concern about their effectiveness.

But what was widely seen, and increasingly resented, as a US policy of taking sides is now said to be over.

Ambassador Holbrooke said that in the Afghan presidential elections set for August, Washington was not going to support or oppose individual candidates: "We want a level playing field."

In the last presidential election in 2004, it was abundantly clear President Karzai was backed by the United States and other Western allies.

Now American officials are urging many candidates to run to ensure as free and fair race as possible.

There is no doubting Washington's determination to tackle this mounting crisis. But there are also no illusions about a situation which may get worse before it gets any better.

European diplomats admit there may be problems in coming up with the extra troop numbers and financial resources Washington expects its allies to contribute to this growing priority.

"We hoped to give Vice-President Biden firm commitments when he came to visit this month," admitted one diplomat.

But slow budgetary processes and mounting financial worries meant there were only pledges.

Ambassador Holbrooke said he was encouraged by the initial signs of support.

But if sufficient resources were not forthcoming, the United States would still have to "do what we have to do".

He insisted there was a "common challenge, common threat, common task", not just for the United States and its Nato allies but also for Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

He urged "our friends in South Asia to join us and face that common threat".

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