It was a busy weekend on the Afghanistan/Pakistan file. First, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told 60 Minutes what a lot of people in Western capitals have been eager to hear: Not that the Taliban pose an existential threat to the survival of the Pakistan state—lots of folks already knew that—but that Zardari gets it. Here’s the video:
Much of the 60 Minutes report deals with the Swat Valley, northwest of Islamabad. On a whirlwind trip through the region, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke told the Indians that what happens in Swat is as dangerous to India as it is to Pakistan, Afghanistan or the U.S. (Holbrooke is also eagerly messaging to Iran during this trip.)
Visits from high-level U.S. envoys are news wherever they happen; in Pakistan, visits from U.S. drone-mounted heavy ordinance are becoming closer to routine.
In Munich, Holbrooke leaned heavily on the Obama administration’s new emphasis on treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single regional problem. Hence his own mandate. And now, key U.S. allies are following suit: The UK and Germany have both named a single contact person for Holbrooke with responsibility for the whole region. “I assume that other European countries will do the same,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, tells Reuters.
And what of Canada? Last autumn I heard that Canadian officials, including our ambassador to Kabul and our high commissioner to Islamabad, are working more closely together. Will Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon be naming an Af-Pak interlocutor? Did you sigh, as I did, at the sight of the phrase “Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon”?
Here I’m going to open up a brief digression. I’ll tell you one guy who doesn’t care what Canada does: Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In German politics the foreign minister is normally considered the Number 2 person in government after the Chancellor. And in a coalition, the foreign minister is normally the leader of the opposition. So Steinmeier will be leading the Socialist Democrats when he runs for Chancellor against Angela Merkel this autumn. So Steinmeier could be Chancellor of Germany before the end of the year. Two weeks ago he became the second foreign minister to meet Hillary Clinton in Washington. He made no inquiries about whether he could stop in Ottawa on the way there or back, as foreign dignitaries once routinely did. Ottawa is a handy place to tackle jet lag, frankly, and while you’re there you can chat with a government that understands U.S. files better than most.
But a year ago, Frank-Walter Steinmeier put in a telephone call to Canada’s foreign minister, who at the time — and here you need to check your calendar because these things change quickly — was David Emerson. So here’s Germany’s foreign minister on the line, waiting waiting waiting, and the receptionist comes back with, “Minister Emerson is a bit busy at the moment, sir.” Well, Steinmeier says, when won’t he be busy? Pause. “Minister Emerson doesn’t like talking to other foreign ministers on the telephone.” So that’s why Germany’s foreign minister doesn’t much care what happens in Canada now.
Where was I? Ah yes, Holbrooke. The Globe had a fascinating piece on the weekend by a former U.S. diplomat, Thomas Schweich, who is no fan of Holbrooke’s. I’ve read critiques of Schweich’s earlier sorties on assorted U.S. blogs, so I’m not sure what to make of every detail of his op-ed. But much of Schweich’s critique of the “convoluted hierarchy” Obama has erected to handle foreign policy, and especially the Afghanistan war, is well taken. His point is that throwing bodies at a problem is not only not-a-solution, it can hinder a solution if lines of authority aren’t clear and everyone spends precious time infighting. It’s clear that Obama wants to get Afghanistan — sorry, Afghanistan-and-Pakistan — right, but will is not a solution. Paul Martin wanted to improve relations with the Bush administration, and for a few weeks, Canada-U.S. offices and mandates and committees and special representatives were sprouting like mushrooms in Ottawa and Washington. A cautionary tale.
As is this video a Guardian reporter shot while embedded with U.S. troops in one thoroughly nasty corner of Afghanistan. Harrowing stuff, especially in the last minute of the video.
UPDATE: Here’s your chance to debate whether Obama is showing careful deliberation, or dithering. He’s taking much longer to decide on the scale of a supplementary U.S. deployment on Afghanistan than some of his own military commanders expected. This latest Politico story is consistent with something Joe Klein reported a few weeks back: “Asked about the persistent reports from the Pentagon that up to 30,000 more troops are scheduled for Afghanistan, a senior Obama aide said, ‘No — repeat, no — decision has been made about troop levels in Afghanistan, and anyone at the Pentagon who says otherwise should be fired.'” The second half of that sentence is what makes this a very interesting quote.