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U.S. fully backing Pakistan government: Holbrooke

Nirupama Subramanian

Richard Holbrooke

ISLAMABAD: Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has stepped in to smooth ruffled feathers over the impression that the Obama administration is building up the Pakistan military to secure the future of the country and the region rather than the elected civilian government.

Speaking to a Pakistani journalist — Dawn newspaper described it as a “hastily arranged interview” held at the Pakistan embassy in Washington — Mr. Holbrooke said the U.S. had full confidence in President Asif Ali Zardari and the elected government of Pakistan.

“Of course the government in Islamabad is capable of running the country. They are democratically elected, a fine group of people,” he remarked.

This is quite the opposite of what President Barack Obama had to say at his press conference last week. He said the Pakistan government lacked the capacity to deliver essentials such as food, health services, education and justice to the people, and that this was the main source of concern to him.

Mr. Holbrooke described media interpretation here of President Obama’s remarks as a devastating put-down of the government as “journalistic gobbledygook.”

He was emphatic that the U.S. was giving its full backing to the civilian government in Pakistan. “It’s as simple as that. Who has President Obama invited to Washington next week? President Zardari.”

Frequent meetings between Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the special envoy said, were aimed at offering assistance to Pakistan.

“[General Kayani] has pledged support for the democratic and civilian government of Pakistan. We take him at his word,” he said.

President Zardari is in London on a brief non-official stopover on his way to the U.S., where he, President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will hold a joint meeting on Wednesday to discuss ways of enhancing co-operation in the region in line with the new U.S. strategy for “Afpak.”

Significantly, Gen. Kayani will not travel to Washington even though it was expected that he would be a key participant in the discussions this week. The News said the Obama administration was keen to have the Pakistan Army chief present at the talks, but Gen. Kayani has decided to stay back in view of the security situation in the country.

The newspaper said that it had been “informally” conveyed to Washington that it was not necessary for the top military leader to be present at the talks, when the top civilian leader was heading the delegation.

Instead, the military delegation will be led by ISI chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha and the Director-General Military Operations.

Aside from the stir over President Obama’s explicit expression of his lack of confidence in the Pakistan government just days ahead of President Zardari’s visit, the New York Times reported that the U.S. is reaching out to Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in a bid to strengthen what Mr. Obama described as a “very fragile” government in Islamabad.

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