Nirupama Subramanian

ISLAMABAD: India has a legitimate role to play in the search for stability in Afghanistan and the region, the U.S. special envoy on Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, said on Friday.

Mr. Holbrooke’s two-day visit, that he described as a “humanitarian mission’ to assess the needs of people displaced by anti-Taliban military operations in the North-West Frontier Province, was marred by a bomb blast in a mosque in the operational area after Friday prayers in which nearly 40 people were killed.

The bomb attack took place in a village in Upper Dir, close to the Swat valley, where the military has been fighting the Taliban for more than a month. The explosion killed at least 38 worshippers. The building was reduced to rubble and many people were feared trapped under it.

At a press conference at the end of his visit, the U.S. official commended the Pakistan military for taking on the Taliban, and said it indicated that Islamabad was determined to take on extremism.

“It’s a big turn,” he said.

He also attempted to allay Pakistani fears that a troop surge in Afghanistan could mean U.S. troops inside Pakistan, saying Pakistani troops would tackle militants on their side of the border and no U.S. troops would be deployed in this country.

In response to a question, Mr. Holbrooke said the term “Afpak” was not meant to demean Pakistan, but was “bureaucratic shorthand” intended to convey that the situation in the border areas on both sides was linked and one side could not be resolved without the other.

Answering another question, the special envoy said though he was not the special representative for India, he was in constant touch with the Indian government for “obvious” reasons.

“India is a very important player not only in the region, but also internationally and throughout the globe. They have a legitimate role to play in the search for stability in the region, and a legitimate need to be fully informed of what we are doing,” he said.

He said U.S. relations with India and Pakistan were “not a zero-sum game,” and it was possible for the U.S. to build good relations with both countries.

Earlier, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who met Mr. Holbrooke, asked him to write off monies owed by Pakistan to the U.S. to the tune of $1.5 billion.

Mr. Holbrooke had earlier announced $200 million in humanitarian assistance, in addition to an earlier commitment of $110 million to help Pakistan deal with the problems of the internally displaced persons. The statement said Mr. Holbrooke assured Mr. Gilani that the U.S. would look into Pakistan’s request for the debt write-off.

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