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Pak has reduced troops on Indian border: Holbrooke
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

Pakistan has moved a significant number of its troops from the Indian border in order to tackle in-land militants, a senior US official has said.

The comments from Richard Holbrooke, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, who just completed a trip to Pakistan, will likely boost New Delhi’s willingness to restart a dialogue with Pakistan.

The dialogue was disrupted by the Mumbai attacks, which resulted in Pakistan deploying troops along its western border in the wake of fears of retaliation by India.

Speaking to reporters at the State Department on Wednesday, Holbrooke said, “The number of [Pakistani] troops that have been moved towards the west is clearly larger than the number that were moved eastwards after the Mumbai bombing.”

He noted that it was for the Pakistan government to “announce their own force deployments, not for me to make a headline here”.

But Holbrooke’s comments gain significance in light of US efforts to jump-start the India-Pakistan dialogue.

Holbrooke was confident that Pakistani troops would be able to build on their recent gains against the Taliban in the Swat valley. “The Pakistan army has moved a great deal of troops, to the west this time, a very large number. And it’s made a difference,” he said.

While in Pakistan, Holbrooke met with both the civilian as well as the military leadership - President Asif Ali Zardari, his archrival Nawaz Sharif, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and ISI Chief Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. He noted a dramatic change in attitudes from his previous trips to Pakistan and attributed this to the “outrages of the Taliban and their supporters”.

Holbrooke said the Obama administration believed it must keep in “closest consultations” with India on developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He spoke with Undersecretary of State William Burns on the latter’s arrival in New Delhi early on Wednesday. Burns is carrying a private presidential letter for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Holbrooke noted that he would have been the one carrying the message had he got the time to visit New Delhi after his visit to Pakistan.

Describing the contents of the letter as private, Holbrooke said it was important to note that the third most important person in the US State Department had gone to India to “reaffirm immediately after the election” US commitment to the relationship.

“The Indians were very frank with us. They wanted to keep in touch with us during the election period. But they had to wait through the election, just like we do; the world’s two greatest democracies,” he added.

Holbrooke will be meeting India’s Ambassador in Washington, Meera Shankar, next week. He has already met her twice since her arrival in Washington late last month. “We consider India an absolutely critical country in the region,” Holbrooke said, adding, “India is not a part of the problem but is vitally affected. And we want to work closely with India.”

Discussing the plight of refugees pouring out of Swat, Holbrooke said the highest priority for these people was to be able to return to their homes as quickly as possible. But to get back they needed security, he said, adding, “And the military is still in the process of cleaning out Swat and Buner and other areas. And that job is not yet complete.”

Holbrooke, who visited two tent cities for refugees while in Pakistan, said the displaced people understood why they had been made homeless. They did not like the Taliban.

Recounting a conversation with a mechanic who had been forced to abandon his home in Swat, Holbrooke said, “One man sitting in an unventilated tent with one of his wives and about seven of his 15 children ... quite memorably, said to me, ‘I used to live in heaven; now I live in hell’.”

Obama’s special envoy said it was imperative that the refugees should be able to return to their homes. “Those camps and those temporary facilities cannot harden into a permanent refugee settlement, as has happened in so many other parts of the world,” he said.

Holbrooke said the US was very gratified by the Pakistani government’s action against the Taliban. “What I can say is that Pakistan needs our help, and that help is in our own national security interests,” he said.

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