WASHINGTON - An article in a highly respected American weekly magazine has sharply criticised the United States’ failure to come up with a “new overarching strategic policy for Pakistan and the region” in an effort to prevent Islamabad-Washington relations from sinking so low.

“It never happened,” Michael Hirsh, a well-known journalist, wrote in The National Journal of Obama administration’s lack of any initiative to check the drift in the ties with Pakistan that began after the American raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad a year ago.

“And today, rather than coming up with a new overarching strategic policy for Pakistan and the region that is commensurate with the deep commitments that President Obama and Nato have now made, Washington and other capitals continue to watch, helplessly, as a middle-sized developing country defies a superpower and the Nato alliance with virtual impunity,” Hirsh wrote.

The magazine, which is widely read especially by opinion-makers, quoted Richard Holbrooke’s wife Kati Marton, an accomplished journalist and author, as saying on late husband would never have let relations between the United States and Pakistan decline to this level.

“The day after [Osama] bin Laden was killed, Richard would have been on a plane to Pakistan, and he would not have come home until the relationship was mended,” Marton told National Journal. “We never went for a walk in Central Park without calls coming in from Pakistan.”

“He (Holbrooke) knew not only the ISI folks, but the generals and all the politicians and dissidents. He crawled into tents in refugee camps,” Marton said. “He wouldn’t have allowed [this] to happen.”

Hirsh wrote that the US-Pakistan tensions that may now pose the single biggest obstacle to ending America’s longest war. “Nominally a US ally, Pakistan has stepped up its support of violent extremists intent on attacking US and Nato soldiers in Afghanistan and undermining stability there. But according to critics in the United States, Europe, and Pakistan, the issue is still being largely shunted aside by Washington out of fear, inertia, and a lack of a strategic vision on the part of the US and Nato.”

The author also quotes Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born former US diplomat as saying, “It is a failure of diplomacy of the highest order, where we have had the lives of our people at stake.” In order to keep the Pakistanis even marginally cooperative, Khalilzad, a former American Ambassador to Afghanistan and the United Nations, said, “I think frankly we have been too cautious and willing to pay too high a price.”

According to the article, “Before he was forced out of office last year, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani — who worked closely with Holbrooke — urged US officials to adopt a ‘holistic’ approach to the region that would help wean Pakistan from its military support of Islamists. It never happened.”

“The Americans are completely paralysed by this situation,” it quoted an unnamed European diplomat as saying. A senior Nato official also laid the problem on the Americans. “It’s quite difficult at times to find a single US policy on Pakistan, much less coordination with others.”

White House officials, responding to Marton’s comments, said on Friday that the US-Pakistan relationship is poor mainly because of “a series of events that were impossible to foresee but had nothing to do with our policy. The incidents began with the diplomatic furore over a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis in early 2011 and culminated in the Nato strikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops last November. That had nothing to do with “poor diplomacy,” one White House official was quoted as saying.

The administration’s paralysis has been evident in an intense, months-long debate over whether to issue an apology to Pakistan over the errant Nato strikes, even though several months have passed since the completion of an official Pentagon investigation that partially blamed mistakes made by US forces for the incident, US officials said. The State Department resurrected the idea earlier this year after repudiating the US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, early on when he pressed for an immediate apology following the incident last November. But Obama, facing charges of appeasement from Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, has hesitated.

Marton said that by the end of the summer of 2010, Holbrooke, before he died suddenly that December at the age of 69, had begun to grow confident that he could deliver a strategic vision for the region that would address the fundamental issues in the US-Pakistan relationship. “I think it was in August, when I caught him with a faraway look, the kind he had when he was working on something in his head. I said, ‘Richard what are you thinking about?’ He said, ‘I think I’ve got it. I think I can see how all the pieces can fit together.’ It looked like he was working a Rubik’s cube in his head…. The thing that keeps me awake some nights is that I’m not at all sure he had that conversation with the president.”

But the article said it’s not clear that would have made a difference, however. Widely acclaimed as one of America’s most masterful diplomats, having orchestrated the 1995 Dayton peace accord, Holbrooke was intensely frustrated by White House interference, according to observers inside and outside the administration. After being named Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, Holbrooke was said to have been curtailed by then-National Security Adviser James Jones and a coterie of close aides around Obama. This was especially true when Holbrooke sought to tackle the larger regional issues, in particular the tense relationship between India and Pakistan, which the Pakistani military and ISI use to justify their support of radicals. The White House denied his request to make India and specifically Kashmir part of his portfolio, although that disputed province, situated between Pakistan and India, has given birth to numerous jihadist groups. Nor did Holbrooke get support from the White House when he sought to confront Afghan President Hamid Karzai over corruption, critics say.

After Holbrooke died suddenly, he was replaced by career diplomat Marc Grossman, who is widely considered ineffective and has only provoked back-biting from the State Department’s South and Central Asian bureau, where the assistant secretary, Robert Blake, has been largely cut out. “It’s all Holbrooke’s broken china,” one official was quoted as saying. The two leading figures in US policy in the region, Ryan Crocker, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and Gen John Allen, are already making plans to leave (in Crocker’s case, back to retirement, while Allen is expected to be named Nato commander in Europe). Ambassador Munter, described as increasingly agitated over the failure of US policy, has been reassigned.

“While Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is sometimes praised for her approach to the region, having recently proposed a ‘New Silk Road’ to induce Pakistan and other countries to work with Afghanistan, she too is seen as someone who has been largely cut out of policymaking by the White House,” the article said.

In recent days, Pakistan’s decision to imprison a doctor who helped the United States confirm bin Laden’s whereabouts has only highlighted the diplomatic issue, the NJ said.

US and Nato officials remain hesitant about offending Islamabad because of a bedrock fear that, if Pakistan becomes destabilised, its nuclear arsenal could fall into the wrong hands. That caution ruled at the recent Nato summit in Chicago, where all the talk was simply about getting the Pakistanis to permit Nato the use of its overland routes in order to expedite the pullout.

Despite the rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan, Khalilzad, who often takes anti-Pakistan positions, and other critics suggest that one alternative is to issue a “demarche” of the kind the Pakistanis have not been given since right after 9/11, when then-President Pervez Musharraf was delivered a stark choice: Support the war against the Taliban totally, or you’re through. Now Pakistan should be confronted with a clear and harsh update of that choice: confront the international community and be turned into a sanctioned pariah, like Iran, in which case the country will lose ground economically and militarily to its arch-rival India. Or, embrace fully anti-Taliban measures and be rewarded with more economic assistance, such as Clinton’s New Silk Road, which seeks to turn the region into a commercial hub once again.

“We have to be willing to escalate the pressure, which in my view has to include Pakistan’s very difficult economic circumstances,” says Khalilzad. “Today I think the Pakistanis can cover only about 10 weeks of imports. We also need to move diplomatically by engaging some key countries they rely on, like China and Saudi Arabia.”

Until he died, Marton says, Holbrooke was trying to get the administration to see the larger picture. “He was pushing reconciliation with the Taliban when no one wanted to hear about it,” Marton said. “He knew that ultimately they would have to come to him to negotiate.” But now negotiations are going nowhere.”