The Cable

Holbrooke: No peace negotiations taking place in Afghanistan

Meetings between Afghan leadership and Taliban figures are ongoing, but the two sides are nowhere near a peace deal and in fact are not even to the point of negotiating one, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke said Sunday.

"I think the press has left the impression that negotiations of the type which ultimately ended the war in Vietnam in 1973 and ultimately ended the war in Bosnia in 1995 are somehow breaking out. That is just not the case," he said on CNN's GPS with Fareed Zakaria show Sunday morning.

"What we've got here is an increasing number of Taliban at high levels saying, hey, we want to talk," Holbrooke explained. "I think this is a result, in large part, of the growing pressure they're under from General Petraeus and the ISAF command."

Holbrooke was adamant that -- whatever talks are taking place between the government of President Hamid Karzai and leaders of some of the insurgent groups -- it should not be called a "negotiation."

"I would not use that word," he said. "I know what a negotiation looks like... Let's not leave the viewers with the impression that some kind of secret negotiation like the famous secret negotiations on Vietnam, is taking place, because it's not."

Holbrooke warned that a peace agreement of the sort seen in past conflicts is unlikely because there is no titular head of the insurgency with whom to strike a deal.

"There's no Ho Chi Minh. There's no Slobodan Milosevic. There's no Palestinian Authority. There is a widely dispersed group of people that we roughly call the enemy," he said. "So the idea of peace talks, to use your phrase, or negotiations, to use another phrase, doesn't really add up to the way this thing is going to evolve."

Holbrooke said he had no personal information that the Pakistani military or intelligence services have been trying to thwart rapprochement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, as the New York Times has reported. He refused to publicly call for the Pakistani military to increase its effort against terrorist groups in North Waziristan, saying that Pakistan knew the Obama administration's position on the issue.

"I'm not here to defend the Pakistani military or to attack them," he said.

Overall, Holbrooke's take on the progress of the war effort was cautious, if not entirely bleak.

"It's certainly not another Vietnam, for reasons you and I discussed before. And it is certainly not hopeless. But anyone who doesn't recognize what a daunting task it is, is misleading," he said. "And the American public should understand that this is not going to be solved overnight. It is going to be a difficult struggle."

Holbrooke was not asked about the stunning admission by Karzai that his office received bags full of cash from Iran. Holbrooke did attend a meeting last week in Rome with dozens of Special Representatives from various countries dealing with the Afghan war where the Iranian government was also represented.

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The Cable

What? No closing reception for the Pakistani delegation?

So you've got dozens of Pakistani officials holding intensive meetings at the State Department all week, hammering out details on cooperation and trading views on points of contention. Then finally, at the end, everybody gathers in the Benjamin Franklin room at the State Department for some nice snacks, some friendly speeches, and a happy send off, right? Not this time.

There was no standard farewell reception for the Pakistani delegation after this week's Strategic Dialogue sessions at the State Department. Your humble Cable guy, who just adores the savory parmesan flan, carrot and apricot fritters with vanilla-apricot chutney, Argentinean pulled chicken, petite lamb burgers, samosas, and sesame-encrusted salmon that are sometimes served at Foggy Bottom, was personally disappointed that there would be no formal send off. Not to pour salt in the wound, but the Indians got a reception, didn't they?

So what happened? Well, as it turns out, both sides decided it just wasn't a great idea.

One State Department official told The Cable that Special Representative Richard Holbrooke had proposed a reception when planning the week's dialogue agenda but that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't approve the idea.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable that Clinton had a meeting she couldn't move that conflicted with the 4:00 PM reception time. He didn't specify what that meeting was, and it was not on her daily public schedule.

"The secretary ran into a scheduling conflict. We raised it with the Pakistanis. And there was a mutual agreement to cancel the reception," Crowley said.

The Pakistanis did not appear to be particularly perturbed by the cancellation. Our Pakistani sources said they were totally fine with skipping the reception, especially since Clinton wasn't going to be there. This way, Pakistani officials could board a 7 pm flight back to Islamabad and return to the mountain of work awaiting them there.

We're also told privately by officials on both sides that pictures of Pakistani leaders partying with a bunch of Americans would not have been a great public relations moment for the Pakistani government, considering that the country is still reeling from the flood disaster and the Pakistani press is eager to find any reason to criticize its civilian leaders.

As with most aspects of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, the significance of this non-event is in the eye of the beholder. For some we talked to, this was a total non-story, just an example of another thing that didn't make it onto Clinton's ridiculously busy schedule. Others, however, saw it as a slight -- that Clinton didn't want to do the ‘grip ‘n grin' with the Pakistanis and a signal that the Obama team wanted to drive home the message that they are unhappy with Islamabad's cooperation these days.

What's clear is that there was a lot of positive interaction this week between the U.S. and Pakistani governments, and that most actors on both sides genuinely want to see relations continue to improve. While President Obama delivered a direct message to top Pakistani officials Wednesday, calling on Pakistan to provide more help in fighting the Taliban, we're told by multiple officials that he couched his message in praise for the government's actions on other fronts and expressed genuine sympathy for the country's current flood predicament.

At the same time, there's an underlying tension on both sides of the relationship as differences on several specific issues pile up: The Obama administration doesn't know how to convince the Pakistani military to speed up its timeline for going after groups in North Waziristan, and the Pakistani military doesn't know why they should take on such a huge risk, especially if peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are gaining momentum, and the United States is preparing to leave Afghanistan.

Some in the administration are also feeling some buyer's remorse after working hard to secure billions of dollars in aid for Pakistan, which they feel is not appreciated. But many Pakistani officials see the aid as ultimately too little to compensate for the cost of the decisions Washington is asking them to take and far too little to solve the core problems plaguing their country.

The Pakistani leadership still views its relationship with the United States as transactional -- based on short-term deal making, rather than long-term friendship. Of course, that's exactly what the Obama administration is trying to change with structures such as the Strategic Dialogue. But that effort still has a ways to go.

"The Pakistani point of view is, ‘exactly what's being invested in the long term?'" explained Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He said that so little of the money from the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan aid bill has been delivered that the effect had been minimal.

Nawaz is concerned that, unless the Obama administration is able to resolve some of the pressing issues facing the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, there will be little desire for future meetings of this kind.

"The fact that [the Strategic Dialogue meetings] are still taking place is a very good thing," said Nawaz. "But unless there are some immediate results, I doubt it will go on. If it's seen like a futile endeavor, both sides are going to find ways to not be present at the highest level."

Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani did hold a very classy, tasteful reception at his residence Thursday evening, which several Pakistani and U.S. officials attended, including new U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter and senior State Department official Robin Raphel. The buffet of Pakistani delicacies was delicious.