New York Times: President Obama’s top envoy to Afghanistan declared Sunday that Iran should play a vital role helping stabilize the war-torn country.
The New York Times
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
Published: February 16, 2009
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Obama’s top envoy to Afghanistan declared Sunday that Iran should play a vital role helping stabilize the war-torn country. It was the latest statement by Obama officials signaling a clear shift away from the Bush administration’s policy of avoiding direct engagement with Tehran.
The Obama administration has been very critical of Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon and support for terrorist groups. But the comments here on Sunday by the envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, appeared to suggest that the new administration might also seek to use discussions with Iran about Afghanistan as one way to establish a broader dialogue.
“It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan,” Mr. Holbrooke said during an interview on Sunday with Tolo TV, a private Afghan television network. “They have a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan’s neighbors.”
He also passed up an opportunity to criticize Tehran about allegations — some made by NATO officials — that it has provided help to Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan.
“I heard those reports,” Mr. Holbrooke said. “I talked to the military command about them. I did not have enough time really to get into the details yet, but I will get into it on future trips.”
Mr. Obama has said that he will reach out to Iran for direct talks, and last week the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said that Iran was ready. The two nations have not spoken directly since the Islamic Revolution in Iran 30 years ago.
Afghanistan shares its entire western border with Iran, and a major portion of the massive Afghan opium crop is smuggled through Iran.
Mr. Holbrooke flew to India on Sunday night after making his first visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan as Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the two countries, part of the administration’s review of American policy in the region from the ground up. As security in Iraq has improved, Pakistan and Afghanistan have emerged as perhaps the most difficult foreign policy challenges facing Mr. Obama, who is already weighing whether to double the American troop deployment in Afghanistan to about 60,000.
While the situation in Pakistan remains grim, Mr. Holbrooke also said he was shocked by the problems he saw in the country, which he last visited a year ago.
He said he was especially concerned that the Swat Valley, a onetime ski resort about 100 miles from Islamabad, had been seized by Taliban guerrillas, who blow up schools, assassinate police officers and beat — or behead — those who do not adhere to their strict version of Islam.
On Sunday, the Taliban announced a 10-day cease-fire with Pakistani forces in Swat for talks with the government.
“We are very concerned about Pakistan and stability,” Mr. Holbrooke said during the interview with Tolo TV. “I was stunned by the change in Pakistan since I was last there, and about the psychological effect that the fall of much of Swat had caused for the people of Islamabad, Peshawar and even Lahore.”
Earlier on Sunday, Mr. Holbrooke and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, appeared at a hastily arranged photo opportunity in Kabul to announce that Afghan officials would participate in a strategic review of American policy in Afghanistan. They also emphasized their commitment to hold Afghan elections in August and applauded an agreement between the American and Afghan militaries aimed at decreasing the civilian toll from American and NATO airstrikes and ground missions.
Mr. Karzai, once a favorite of the American government, has said in recent days that Mr. Obama has not spoken to him since the inauguration, a disclosure widely seen to reflect the Afghan leader’s diminished stature in Washington. Last week Mr. Obama said the Afghan government “seems very detached from what’s going on in the surrounding community.”
In Kabul, Mr. Holbrooke sought to play down the tension between Mr. Karzai and the Obama administration. “Friends often disagree,” he said during the interview on Sunday. “I don’t see the issue.”
Yet before he was named the Obama administration’s envoy, even Mr. Holbrooke criticized the Karzai government as weak.
“That was some other person using my name,” he said jokingly. “Of course I don’t repudiate anything I wrote as a private citizen. Those were my personal views at that time. I am now representing the United States.”