Seeking Truth and Trust in Pakistan
Envoy Tries to Convince Refugees That U.S. Is on Their Side

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."

In interviews and at news conferences with the Pakistani media, Holbrooke parried questions about U.S. Predator drone attacks -- he said he would not discuss them or Pakistan's nuclear weapons program -- and Osama bin Laden's charge of U.S. responsibility for destruction and deaths in Swat. "He's living in a cave," Holbrooke retorted, "so maybe he hasn't seen the damage he's done."

In meetings with Pakistan's government, military, judiciary and political opposition leaders, he pressed the message that getting the refugees back home safely was as crucial, and perhaps even more immediately important, as the ongoing military offensive. Temporary refugee camps tend quickly to become permanent, he argued. They are breeding grounds for public dissatisfaction and recruitment centers for extremists; getting people out of them is key to building confidence in the government.

"This has got to happen," he told a senior U.S. official in an aside at a dinner for international relief workers during the trip. "Figure out whatever we need to do. Don't worry about how much it costs."

Holbrooke is no stranger to refugee camps. He toured them in Southeast Asia, where he began his career as a junior Foreign Service officer in South Vietnam. In the 1990s, as chief U.S. negotiator for the Dayton peace accords, he walked the camps in Bosnia. As United Nations ambassador in the Clinton administration, and an activist official and board member for nongovernmental organizations during the George W. Bush years, he saw refugee squalor across Africa.

The Pakistani refugees, from their tent cities on the hot, dry plain west of the Indus River, can see the high mountain ridge to the north, the gateway to their homes in the Swat Valley and the neighboring districts of Buner and Dir. If they are still here when the summer monsoons arrive next month, the camps will become muddy swamps.

For now, the parching heat and the absence of refugee possessions gives the canvas settlement a veneer of tidiness. There is little inside the tents, other than a bare light bulb, a plastic bucket, a few blankets and those who live there. Outside, there is no shade or vegetation; the white cloth, the hard ground and the people are all covered in the same monochromatic dust.

No one appeared to be starving or seriously ill, but no one had anything to do but wait. "I've seen better, I've seen worse," Holbrooke said as he stalked the orderly tent rows with a bottle of water in his hand, leaving heavily armed police commandos and shouting Pakistani journalists in his wake.

Facing a group of unsmiling, tired-looking men gathered under a communal meeting tent, he prodded for information to take home to U.S. intelligence analysts and White House policymakers. "The Taliban who came to you, were they people you knew? . . . Why do people join the Taliban? . . . Who was protecting you before the Taliban came? The army? The police? The Frontier Corps? . . . Why did all of this happen, in your opinion?"

A young, cleanshaven man answered warily. Many people welcomed the Taliban "for justice, to decide the cases" that languished, ignored, in government courts, he said. It was "mostly weak people in the community" who joined the extremists. "They were unemployed, and the Taliban paid them." The others nodded.

But the refugees had more immediate concerns. They all wanted to go home, the men agreed, but it was not safe. Crops were ready for harvest, but there were still reports of fighting; there was no electricity, no water and much destruction in their villages. Local police and officials had fled; government threats to fire anyone who did not return to work had gone unheeded.

They were given meals in a communal dining tent, but they wanted to cook their own food. They had no pots and pans. The U.N. World Food Program supplied only wheat and oil -- what could they make with that? Why were some families given electric fans and others not?

"Where is our government stipend?" one man shouted, referring to the 25,000 Pakistani rupees (about $300) the government has promised each displaced family.

"Where are our leaders?" asked another man. "Why aren't they here?"

Holbrooke, his shirt sodden and a U.S. Agency for International Development cap on his head, waited patiently. "Thank you for being so honest and open," he said. "We come from the United States. President Obama has sent us to see how we can help you.

"The most important thing is for you to go home. . . . I talked to your president yesterday. I will see him tonight. I will tell him what you said. . . . I wish we could do more."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company