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Afghan, Pakistani Officials Welcome Broader Strategy From US Regional Envoy

By Barry Newhouse
23 January 2009

President Barack Obama's appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan has drawn praise from local officials and analysts eager for new approaches in U.S. policy. But behind the broad consensus for change, many remain skeptical about the chances of success.

The appointment of Holbrooke attempts to address what many analysts and lawmakers say has been desperately needed - a more comprehensive strategy against extremists who are fighting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ambassador Holbrooke Thursday called the current U.S. foreign assistance program in the region "clearly chaotic." He said he plans to work more closely with U.S. generals in Afghanistan to create a better coordinated policy.

Such a plan will most likely focus on countering Taliban bases in Pakistan's tribal regions that are blamed for contributing to a spike in violence on both sides of the border.

Pakistani and Afghan officials have very different views on how to resolve that issue - which promises complex negotiations for Ambassador Holbrooke.

In Kabul, Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen said he hoped Holbrooke's appointment would lead to tougher action against militants in Pakistan.

"This is an opportunity for the region to encourage Pakistan for better cooperation in the war against terror," he said. "We hope the new envoy focuses especially on the bases of the terrorists which are outside the border of Afghanistan."

In Islamabad Friday, several hundred demonstrators gathered in the downtown chanting slogans against the United States and the Pakistani military for battling Taliban militants in the tribal regions.

They say stop all operation in Bajur and all the tribal areas. They say down with the friends of America - those who are traitors.

These demonstrators represent what Pakistani officials say is growing public opposition to covert U.S. airstrikes and ongoing Pakistani military offensives against Taliban fighters in the tribal regions. Pakistan's U.S.-backed government has repeatedly called for a halt to the airstrikes, saying they undermine public support.

Pakistani analyst Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, expects the Obama administration to continue to rely heavily on military operations in Afghanistan and airstrikes in Pakistan in the coming months.

"I think that the envoy's hands are already tied. Because the decision for the surge has already been taken," he said. "That will mean more exposure of the troops, more attacks, more casualties."

The Obama administration has pledged an equally vigorous diplomatic push aimed at establishing a deeper engagement with Pakistani and Afghan people. Members of his administration have also been vocal supporters of boosting nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, financing projects to improve the quality of life in areas vulnerable to Taliban influence.

But military options appear to remain key to the new president's strategy.

On Friday, Pakistani intelligence officials reported a suspected U.S. drone fired three missiles in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal agency, killing five people. If confirmed, the strike would be the first such covert missile strike under President Obama's administration.


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