In Pakistan, Envoy Holbrooke Tries to Convince Refugees U.S. Is on Their Side

A girl makes her way through the maze of tents at a camp for displaced Pakistanis in Mardan. The refugees long to go home but can't, because it isn't safe.
A girl makes her way through the maze of tents at a camp for displaced Pakistanis in Mardan. The refugees long to go home but can't, because it isn't safe. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

SHAIKH SHAHZAID CAMP, Pakistan -- U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, red-faced and sweaty, sat on the dirt floor of a stifling tent as Aslam Khan, a 38-year-old laborer, spoke haltingly of his family's panicked flight from a Pakistani army offensive against Taliban forces in their mountain village, three hours north of here.

Holbrooke asked some questions about the Taliban but got few answers. "Are these all your children?" he asked with a smile. Yes, Khan said, he had nine.

"Your daughter is beautiful," Holbrooke continued, nodding toward a young woman who sat quietly at the edge of the family. Her head was covered in a royal-blue scarf that revealed only her stunningly dark eyes.

"That's not my daughter," Khan said abruptly. After an awkward silence, the woman explained that she was a Pakistani police officer. It was unclear whether she was there to protect Holbrooke from the refugees, or to monitor what they told him.

In the conflict between Pakistan and Islamist extremists, a fight that has drawn in the United States, trust is in short supply. Holbrooke's visit to this refugee camp and another earlier this month was an attempt to build confidence on all sides, and to seek some ground truth for the administration in a situation where it is sometimes as scarce as good faith. In the end, his presence boosted America's image in Pakistan but brought the refugees no closer to home.

Pakistani authorities appear distrustful of the refugees, wary of their loyalties and of the possibility of Taliban infiltrators. The government and military, while ostentatiously grateful for U.S. aid and concern, continue to mistrust American motives and staying power.

The Obama administration says it is pleased with the Pakistani army's progress but suspects that the government will not follow through on its pledges to quickly rebuild and protect the communities shattered by its six-week-old anti-Taliban offensive in the Swat Valley region. Without a plan to bring more than 2 million war-displaced Pakistanis safely home and a comprehensive strategy to push the offensive into al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries near the Afghan border, administration officials openly fret that the war both here and in Afghanistan will be lost.

The refugees seem to trust no one -- not their government, which had left a vacuum of security and services in the northwest mountains that the Taliban filled; not the Taliban, which brutalized them and destroyed their schools; and certainly not the United States, seen by many of them as the instigator of the war and a threat to Pakistan's sovereignty.

As part of its new strategy for the region, the administration considers Afghanistan and Pakistan a single theater of war and diplomacy. Yet circumstances in the two countries are vastly different. In Afghanistan, tens of thousands of U.S. troops, under new commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, are fighting the Taliban directly, and there are hundreds of American diplomatic and aid personnel to directly deliver U.S. assistance and expertise.

But Pakistan -- a nuclear power where the anti-extremist battle is far more complicated and critical -- is an arms-length operation. U.S. ground troops are not allowed, and the senior American military official in Pakistan, Rear Adm. Michael A. Lefevre, is largely restricted to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

Holbrooke's foray into the camp was an attempt to convince the refugees that the United States was on their side but had no larger designs on their country.

"They do not have enough international assistance, by a long shot," he told a local journalist trailing him through the camps. "The United States is providing more than half the aid. That's not right. Where are the Europeans? Where is the OIC?" he said, referring to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The United States would give all it could in monetary and material aid, he told the refugees, but would send no troops. "It's up to the Pakistani army to give you security," he said. "It's not our job."

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