Islamabad: US President Barack Obama has started reaching out to some of Pakistan’s most fervent Islamist and anti-American parties, including one that helped give rise to the Taliban, trying to improve Washington’s image in the nuclear-armed state.
Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, is initiating dialogue between the US and religious parties previous administrations had largely shunned, both sides said.
“The purpose is to broaden the base of American relations in Pakistan beyond the relatively narrow circle of leaders Washington has previously dealt with,” explained Vali Nasr, senior adviser to Holbrooke.
John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN during the Bush presidency, questioned Holbrooke’s timing for trying to engage Taliban sympathisers on the eve of elections in neighbouring Afghanistan, where US forces are battling the hardline Islamic group.
“As a general proposition, democracy in Pakistan is fragile enough now that negotiating with people that some on the democratic side of the Pakistani spectrum would think themselves are terrorists strikes me as fairly risky,” Bolton said.
“What we ought to be doing is making sure that our ties with the military are strong because the gravest risk is radical penetration of the military.”
At one of this week’s sessions, Liaqat Baloch, a top member of the religious, right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, told Holbrooke he welcomed the new administration’s public change in tone towards Muslims around the world.
But Baloch said he was disturbed to see “no change in practice” in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Obama has stepped up military operations against the Taliban on both sides of the border.
Holbrooke invited Jamaat-e-Islami, whom some US officials compare to the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to visit the heavily guarded American embassy compound in Islamabad, seeking to dispel long-running rumours that thousands of US Marines would be based there.
Holbrooke rejected the party’s complaints about a Western “assault” on Islam, saying “that could not be further from the truth” with Obama, who has roots in the religion, now in the White House.
Fazl-ur-Rehman, whose Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam party was active in rousing support for the Taliban in 1990s, also got an audience with Holbrooke and his team.
Rehman denies Al Qaeda’s responsibility for the 11 September 2001, attacks, and once warned that if US forces invaded Afghanistan, no American in Pakistan would be safe.
In more recent years, however, Rehman’s relationship with the Taliban has grown uneasy, and he has publicly supported negotiations between the US-backed government in Kabul and the Islamist group.
“His hands aren’t exactly clean,” Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation said of Rehman. “He is associated with the Taliban.”
But she described his party as a legitimate political force that has met with US officials in the past.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari praised Holbrooke’s meetings with Islamist parties as “a new era” aimed at promoting reconciliation and dialogue instead of “the violent mindset”.
“We need to help Obama. He’s a breath of fresh air to the world,” Zardari told reporters travelling with Holbrooke.