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US: Don’t let bad guys take over
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

Even in faraway Lahore, Pakistanis were traumatised, in a state of real near-shock at the fall of Swat, which is, after all, a resort they all went to for vacations. — Richard C. Holbrooke, special envoy for Pakistan

Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke says the US is deeply troubled by the Pakistani government's decision to enter into a truce with the Taliban in the Swat valley, whom he compared to the terrorists who attacked Mumbai.

In an interview with US public television on Wednesday, President Barack Obama's special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan said US officials were engaged in very intense discussions with the military leadership of Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency about Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorists.

“We're troubled and confused, in a sense, about what happened in Swat, because it is not an encouraging trend,” Holbrooke said, noting that previous ceasefires in the tribal regions had broken down. “And we do not want to see territory ceded to the bad guys, and the people who took over Swat are very bad people,” he added. Holbrooke wrapped up a fact-finding visit to South Asia last week.

“Even in faraway Lahore, Pakistanis were traumatised, in a state of real near shock at the fall of Swat, which is, after all, a resort they all went to for vacations,” he said.

Holbrooke noted that this was the first time since India's Independence that India, Pakistan and the United States shared a common threat from terrorists. "The people who did 9/11 in the United States, the people who attacked Mumbai, and the people who seized Swat all come from the same roots and all are located in the same area," he said. It was the Obama administration's hope that India and Pakistan "are now going to find the common cause to reduce this threat by taking it head on."

Pakistan and Afghanistan will be sending their foreign ministers to Washington next week to take part in the Obama administration's review of policy in the region. Holbrooke said, "They'll both be coming to Washington next week. They will both meet with Secretary of State (Hillary) Clinton and inter-agency teams as we work together with them to formulate this review." Both Islamabad and Kabul had expressed an interest in setting up panels and participating in the review and making inputs.

Holbrooke's response to the Swat truce is the strongest criticism yet from the Obama administration. Earlier in the week, Gordon Duguid, a State Department spokesman, had refused to characterise the agreement and on Wednesday said: "We're watching the situation."

Daniel Markey, a former State Department official and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Tribune the truce could at best yield a short-term benefit for the Pakistanis. He predicted it would "sooner or later" fail and was likely to provide the militants with a safe haven they would exploit.

It is precisely these concerns that have US officials worried as Obama prepares to send 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan.

Since being ousted from power in the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban have made a comeback in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Holbrooke said the militants have "an increasingly large sanctuary in Pakistan," adding that the events in Swat only highlighted that.

US officials are currently engaged in an intense policy review. On Wednesday Holbrooke; General David H. Petraeus, commander of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq; Bruce Riedel, whom Obama has picked to conduct an interagency review of the US policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan; Michele Flournoy, the new undersecretary of defence; and some 30 other people spent nearly five hours "just discussing these issues and beginning to focus in on them."

Holbrooke described the meetings as "a manifestation of a new, intense, engaged diplomacy designed to put Afghanistan and Pakistan into a larger regional context and move forward to engage other countries in the effort to stabilise this incredibly volatile region."

He acknowledged victory in Afghanistan defined in purely military terms was not achievable. "But denial of the Afghan territory to Al-Qaida is not, in my view, anything beyond an interim necessity. After all, Al-Qaida is operating freely in the tribal areas of western Pakistan," he said.

In an incident that underscored the seriousness of the situation in Pakistan, fighting in Bajaur prevented Holbrooke, the architect of an accord that brought an end to the fighting in Bosnia, from landing in the region.

Noting the Pakistani army's preoccupation with India, Holbrooke said it was now time for the army to "reorient their attention much more to the west." But, he added, "in order to do that, there has to be much more confidence between Pakistan and India."

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Pact in limbo

Islamabad, February 19
The controversial peace agreement designed to end Taliban violence in the Swat Valley hung in limbo on Wednesday amid criticism in Pakistan and rising concern in Washington. According to the Washington Post, neither the Pakistani government nor the Taliban were willing to formalize the accord that was announced on Monday. — ANI

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