KABUL, Afghanistan — A comment at an Ivy League panel that gained little notice in the United States has further soured the often troubled relationship between Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and Afghan officials.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even disavowed the comment during a brief news conference here Monday.
At a Harvard University forum last week, Holbrooke suggested that every Pashtun family in Afghanistan has at least one Taliban member.
"The Taliban is woven into the fabric of Pashtun society on both sides of the border with Pakistan and almost every Pashtun family has someone involved with the movement, HDS Greenway at GlobalPost quoted Holbrooke as saying. "That's why Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun himself, was reaching out to them.
Holbrooke's comments were taken by some as an immature, unsophisticated swipe.
"This shows the shockingly poor understanding of the American official about (the) situation in Afghanistan and sources of violence in the region," the English daily, Afghanistan Times, wrote in its Sunday editorial that demanded an apology from Holbrooke. "By making such mindless comments Holbrooke has insulted Pashtuns and has shown disrespect to sacrifices they have made in the fight against terrorism."
In a bid to tamp down criticism, Holbrooke’s office released the direct quote, which was more nuanced than first reported.
“There are plenty of indirect contacts between Pashtun on both sides — almost every Pashtun family in the south has family or friends who are involved with the Taliban — it’s in the fabric of society,” Holbrooke told the Harvard forum.
On Monday, Holbrooke issued a statement, but it fell short of an apology.
"I want to clarify an earlier statement I made at the Harvard Forum regarding the Taliban," Holbrooke said. "When I noted that almost every Pashtun family has someone involved with the movement, I was reflecting President Karzai’s comment in Istanbul that 'those Taliban who were not part of terrorist networks or Al-Qaeda are sons of the Afghan soil.' I was not suggesting that all Pashtuns are part of the Taliban or all Taliban are Pashtuns. As I stressed at the event, the U.S. Government is supportive of Afghan led efforts to reintegrate and reconcile those elements of the Taliban into society who agree to abide by the laws and Constitution of Afghanistan and to renounce violence and ties to Al Qaeda."
It's not clear if Holbrooke's statement will mollify his critics.
Holbrooke has had a frosty relationship with Karzai, and the U.S. envoy's ability to influence the Afghan president has been limited.
Holbrooke's comments came up in Kabul Monday at a press conference with Karzai and Gates, who made a surprise visit to Afghanistan.
One of the four questions posed was about Holbrooke's remarks at Harvard.
"I have a great deal of respect for the senior representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Holbrooke," Gates told reporters at the presidential palace. "That doesn't mean I agree with everything he says. Including that."
Karzai wrapped up the news conference with a tart retort.
"I guess Secretary Gates answered the question for both of us," Karzai said.
It was the second verbal gaffe by Holbrooke in recent days. Last week at the State Department Holbrooke said that the latest bombings in Kabul were not aimed at Indians, though the explosions targeted guest houses popular with Indians. "I don’t accept the fact that this was an attack on an Indian facility like the embassy. There were foreigners, non-Indian foreigners hurt," he said. That angered New Delhi, however, prompting Holbrooke to issue a clarification on Friday.
In that same briefing, Holbrooke announced that an agreement had been reached with Kyrgyzstan on extending the use of Manas as a transit point for U.S. troops heading into and out of Afghanistan. The government of Krgyzstan, which always keeps it eyes pinned on Moscow, begged to differ. "It is too early to speak about the prolongation of the agreement,” Kadyrbek Sarbaev, the state minister of foreign affairs, told the Newspaper "Slovo Kyrgyzstana Plus."