Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. to Begin Talks

In his heyday as a negotiator in the 1990s, Richard Holbrooke was known as "the bulldozer." When Bosnia's civil war looked intractable, Holbrooke brought all the parties to Dayton, Ohio, where he essentially locked them up until they arrived at a deal. Later, as United Nations ambassador, Holbrooke managed to patch things up between two groups almost as hostile to each other as the former Yugoslav factions were: Republicans in Washington and U.N. bureaucrats in New York. In each case, stagecraft was a big part of his strategy: orchestrating grand meetings that would force hostile factions to talk at length in the same room.

Now Holbrooke seems keen on applying a similar tactic to one of the most intractable feuds of the present day: between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Next week, acting on a suggestion from Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Holbrooke and the Defense Department are convening a four-day trilateral meeting between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States in which senior foreign ministry and intelligence officials will come to Washington for direct negotiations. Conceived as part of a 60-day policy review announced last week by the White House, the convocation« is a distinctly Holbrookian attempt to find common ground in the never-ending struggle over how to contain the resurgent Taliban in both countries. "There's never been anything like this since 2001," said one diplomatic official (not Holbrooke) privy to the discussions. Holbrooke did not immediately return a call asking for comment, but the gathering was confirmed by State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid.

The talks come as relations between Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration appear to be fraying. Meanwhile diplomatic sources friendly to Pakistan suggest that cooperation between Islamabad and Washington, especially on intelligence sharing, is deepening. Even so, Washington is not pleased by an alleged peace deal between the government of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province and Islamic militants in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, a key battleground.

Critics have called the pact a cave-in, allowing a bloodied Pakistani army to retreat, but some Pakistani officials say the deal fits in with a U.S.-orchestrated counterinsurgency campaign. "There are two different groups [in Swat]," says one official. "One is Taliban. The other is a Swat indigenous movement that's been there since 1969. We are getting one on board to isolate other." Or as Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., put it in an op-ed piece in USA Today on Thursday: "We are attempting to drive a wedge between Al Qaeda and the militant Taliban on the one hand, and Swat's indigenous movement that seeks to restore traditional [Sharia] law in the district." Afghan officials say their country has been increasingly overtaken by Taliban forces because of the large safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

Even so, according to a senior diplomatic official in Washington, cooperation between Pakistani intelligence and the CIA has increased dramatically since last September, resulting in much more accurate intel on the location of Al Qaeda figures and much greater success in strikes from the air. The ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, cites a list that shows that most of the top 20 "high value targets" among Al Qaeda and militant figures have been taken out in the past six months. The improved communication resulted from a rapprochement within the Pakistani government between President Asif Ali Zardari and Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani, who jointly decided that Al Qaeda had to be removed as a threat, and an understanding with U.S. military and intelligence officials. The U.S. and Pakistan came to this understanding as a way of resolving the bitter disputes earlier last year over intrusive U.S. operations on the ground and the killing of too many civilians from the air, the diplomatic official said. The ISI agreed to provide better intelligence and assistance on the ground in exchange for more precise U.S. strikes from the air and a pledge not to send U.S. forces across the border again. At the same time, according to the official, they agreed not to make this public because it would compromise Zardari, whose ratings have been dropping, and Kayani.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to open the Washington meeting upon her return from Asia on Sunday. But Holbrooke, reflecting his status as a U.S. "special representative" tasked to coordinate U.S. policy between different agencies, including State, will likely oversee the talks along with his Department of Defense counterpart. It's a long way from talks to takeaways, but keep an eye out for Holbrooke headlines.

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