Richard C. Holbrooke's Problematic Legacy
by Stephen Schwartz
Although commentators reporting on the passing of Richard C. Holbrooke have stressed his role as a representative of President Barack Obama in the Afghanistan-Pakistan war theatre and his main prior exploit as a diplomat – the imposition of the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the brutal war in Bosnia-Hercegovina -- Holbrooke's legacy, regardless of the obituary rhetoric, was an ambiguous one.
Holbrooke's "resolution" of the Bosnian war was emblematic of "land for peace" through negotiations and concessions, the latter typically to be delivered up by the victims of aggression. Indians worried that Holbrooke might have asked their country to hand over Kashmir to Pakistan in exchange for a promised abatement of Pakistani jihadism and of the unadmitted but obvious support, by powerful elements in Islamabad, for the Afghan Taliban. Such a bargain would have closely resembled the outcome Holbrooke pressed on the Bosnian Muslims. In exchange for peace and protection in an enclave, and promises of future reintegration, the Bosnian Muslims had to accept partition of their native land.
Under Dayton, about half of Bosnia's territory was retained by the so-called "Serbian Republic" established by invasion and terror, while another third, the Croatian section of the so-called "Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina," has been the subject of a similar attempt at amputation. The Dayton Accords did not dissuade Slobodan Milosevic and his clique from undertaking a new effort at ethnic expulsion in Kosovo in 1998-99. That resulted in, rather than a diplomatic deal, the U.S.-led NATO military campaign against Belgrade in 1999. But many observers on the ground in the Balkans, in the direct aftermath of Dayton, saw that without the immediate removal of Milosevic, Kosovo would be the next target for aggression by Belgrade. Still, Holbrooke was notably proud of his effort "to end a war" – the phrase he adopted as the title for his memoir, published in 1998.
Almost sixteen years after Dayton, the Bosnian Serbs today are more, rather than less, active in their campaign to carve up Bosnia-Hercegovina once and for all, with, the Serbs hope, international assent. In both the Middle East and the Balkans, "land for peace" has failed in the face of aggressive radicalism. Bosnia-Hercegovina languishes in a swamp of corruption, high unemployment, brain drain, and, in its Muslim area, new infiltration by well-funded Wahhabi radicals.
Having gotten Milosevic to agree to Dayton in 1995, Holbrooke expressed a peculiar myopia about the Serbian demagogue. After the arrest of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008, Holbrooke commented, "One of the worst men in the world… has finally been captured… this guy in my view was worse than Milosevic... he was the intellectual leader," Holbrooke said. Such an argument was absurd. Milosevic had begun his strategic preparations for war in Yugoslavia in 1987, at a time when Karadzic was an obscure writer living in Sarajevo. Serbian-directed atrocities in the former Yugoslavia began in Slovenia in 1991, and continued in Croatia, without any involvement by Karadzic, before smashing Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1992.
That President Obama has a manifest interest in getting out of Afghanistan as soon as possible may be understandable, but is a source of anxiety among many millions in the region worried about a Taliban victory. In recent developments, India and Pakistan alike have been offered the sweetener of American economic cooperation. Still, defeating the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and other jihadist forces influential in Pakistani society, remains the most urgent issue in South Asia's search for stability.
Some observers argue that Pakistan and India – both nuclear-armed, let us not forget – are engaged in a proxy war in Afghanistan, with the Taliban serving Pakistan and the U.S.-led coalition working for Indian interests. Such a confrontation would be no more than an extension of the long Pakistani effort to expel India from Kashmir. Cooperation between Al-Qaida, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and Pakistan-backed combat groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT or Army of the Righteous), that focus on Kashmir, has been close and continuous. LeT was responsible for the horrific 2008 atrocities in Mumbai, and has created extensive networks – as has the broader Pakistani jihadi milieu – among South Asian immigrants to the UK and U.S.
Perhaps because he cannot avoid admitting it, Obama has several times referred to the "cancer" of radical Islam in Pakistan. But from diagnosing this problem to finding its cure is a challenge, and many Indian opinion leaders fear that control over Kashmir, rather than being a pretext for ideological manipulation by Pakistani radicals, will be identified by the White House as the source of the malady – much as the Palestinian question is hung around Israel's neck. The Hindustan Times, India's leading daily, opined on October 31 that instead of a partner in the Afghan struggle, India is viewed by Obama and his cohort as a subsidiary asset available for haggling.
Indians charge that the same Washington faction that argues in favor of "land for peace" in the Middle East – holding that there can be no end of terror in that region until Arab demands in the name of the Palestinians are satisfied – also believes that violence in South Asia will endure until acceptance of a similar "solution" to Pakistani radicalism, which would involve handing Kashmir over to Pakistan. Cutting the whole of Kashmir off from India as bait for Pakistan may seem to Americans as yet another chapter in the long record of conspiracy thinking in the subcontinent, and unworthy of serious discussion.
Still, Holbrooke's affinity for "land-for-peace" was visible in step after step taken in Afghanistan since the Obama inauguration in 2009. Afghan president Hamid Karzai, with Holbrooke's support, commenced negotiations with the Taliban. Holbrooke complained that Karzai's Taliban talks had been overblown in media, and only involved a few disaffected local figures who felt the pressure of military action by the U.S.-led coalition. But whatever the immediate appearance, appeasement of the Taliban by the Afghan and Pakistani governments, as well as by U.S. diplomacy, will encourage, rather than ameliorate, the ambitions of the terrorists.
Holbrooke also justified the inclusion of Iran, the domain of nuclear-ambitious, West-hating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in negotiations on Afghanistan's future held in mid-October. According to Holbrooke, quoted by Reuters on October 18, "What we are discussing here is not affected by, nor will it affect, the bilateral issues that are discussed elsewhere concerning Iran." That was another persistent feature of the Holbrooke paradigm: ignoring the broader context in the interest of immediate and positive-sounding details. Tehran has claimed for years that its interests coincide with those of the U.S. in Afghanistan. But such blandishments are merely cover for Ahmadinejad's unrelenting attempts to aggrandize himself and his regime.
It is a near-certainty that inclusion of the Taliban and Iran in talks on Afghanistan's future will embolden both radical forces, rather than diminishing their aggressivity. Finally, as if direct obstruction of the anti-terror war in Afghanistan by Pakistan and Iran were not bad enough, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), established to "liberate" Jerusalem from Israel, appeared on the Afghan horizon in May. The OIC held the first-ever meeting of its Council of Foreign Ministers in a central Asian country, choosing Dushanbe, capital of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. The OIC sessions dealt with the status of Jerusalem, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, as well as the organization's global initiative to limit free speech about Islam, which it describes as a measure "against defamation of religion." And it proposed to open an OIC office in Central Asia.
Like Iran, Tajikistan shares a long border with Afghanistan. Although made up mainly of Sunni, rather than Shia Muslims, Tajikistan speaks Farsi and has extensive cultural and economic relations with Iran. But Tajikistan also has diplomatic relations with Israel, and underwent an underreported war between former Communists and a coalition including Islamists imported, with Saudi cash, via Uzbekistan, from 1992 to 1996. The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the latter year presented Tajikistan with a significant threat to their co-ethnics, who make up almost a third of the Afghan population. The Tajik civil war ended in a truce.
What does the OIC want in Tajikistan, if not to prepare for a backup role in a share-out of influence in Afghanistan? With Holbrooke as America's diplomatic representative on the ground, Afghanistan may have been destined to end up with the fate of Bosnia-Hercegovina: the Pashtun south turned over to the Taliban and, by proxy, Pakistan; the west and north under Iranian, Tajik, and, possibly Uzbek domination, and an isolated zone around Kabul left for the remains of Afghanistan's government. American lives have been lost to rid Afghanistan of terrorism and keep its territory whole. Obama should not be allowed, by imitating Holbrooke, to deal with Pakistan, the Taliban, Iran and other neighbors of Afghanistan in a manner that dishonors that sacrifice and leaves Afghanistan poor and mutilated.
Related Topics: Balkan Muslims, Bosnian Muslims, Deobandism, European Muslims, Pakistan receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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