Pakistan is likely to remain trapped in a vicious debt cycle, or live on aid for the foreseeable future, given that the European Union says it is working towards “time-barred” trade concessions. And on Friday, US Special Representative Richard Holbrooke added: “aid for sure, but trade is difficult because it involves heavy politics.”
Speaking to The Express Tribune, Mr. Holbrooke said the US Congress had authorised 50 million dollars from the Kerry-Lugar-Berman (KLB) Bill for immediate flood relief, explaining that while Pakistan would receive aid, trade was difficult and he and his staff had been working for over a year on the issue, particularly in regard to the tribal areas, referring to the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) that have yet to materialise.
When asked if the projects identified for development under the K-L Bill were likely to be revised after the floods, Mr Holbrooke remained non-committal saying the US would need to know more about the Pakistan government’s needs after the floods.
Mr Holbrooke visited the flood ravaged regions of Sindh and south Punjab and described the scenes he saw as “gut wrenching.” He said he had never before seen so many people spread out over such a large area, not just in relief camps, but along the roads, dykes and even marooned on small islands, adding that his country was the first to help. “We are helping the Pakistani people because it matters so much to us,” he said.
Talking about different phases of relief efforts, he said he and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton would be at the United Nations this weekend to talk about Pakistan’s needs to be followed by a meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan in Brussels.
He again emphasised that Pakistan needed to raise its revenue base, pointing out it was hard to explain to Congress why American taxpayers’ money was being used for Pakistan where wealthy Pakistanis pay little in taxes.
Mr Holbrooke also said the process of releasing Coalition Support Funds had been “speeded up” which was earlier delayed because some “documentation wasn’t arranged properly”, adding: “This is money we owe Pakistan.”
But Mr Holbrooke studiously avoided any discussion regarding the continuing violence in Indian-held Kashmir, maintaining that the US could not play the role of a mediator. He saw the violence in Kashmir entirely through the Pakistan-India prism and not as a separate issue regarding Kashmiri human rights, saying the US would not interfere between Pakistan and India.
Earlier while talking to a group of journalists in Islamabad he said that Washington does not see an immediate threat to the incumbent government in Islamabad, which faces immense pressure from public and opposition parties and to improve its performance.
“I don’t see any evidence yet suggesting that the government is drowning,” Richard Holbrooke told a select group of journalists here on Friday.
Holbrooke put up a strong defence for the beleaguered PPP-led coalition government. “I am not going to criticise the government, they are doing what they could,” Holbrooke said when asked about speculation of change in Pakistan.
His remarks came amid talk of a national government and also shifting of gears by PML-N Chief Nawaz Sharif, who called for a political change due to, what he called, the government’s failure to deliver.
However, Holbrooke tried to downplay the talk of change.
“Politics goes on,” he said and refused further comments.
Holbrooke praised the Pakistan Army for saving thousands of lives in the flood-hit areas. He added that the US was not concerned that the Pakistan Army’s participation in rescue and relief activities could have a negative impact on the battle against extremism.
“Let’s sort out these strategic issues later,” he said, adding that he did not see any evidence yet indicating that the Taliban had taken any advantage of the natural catastrophe.
Reiterating Washington’s policy on fence-mending with the Taliban, Holbrooke said the US was ready to hold talks with reconcilable insurgents provided they renounce al Qaeda.
He brushed aside the impression that the Taliban were winning the battle in Afghanistan. “I don’t think the Taliban are winning,” he insisted.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2010.