How would Pakistan fare under Obama?

May 27, 2008

Senator Barack Obama/Steve MarcusWith Senator Barack Obama looking increasingly confident about winning the Democratic nomination, there have been a new spate of articles on what it would mean for Pakistan if he becomes president.

The most eye-catching, perhaps, was a story in The News  about how President Pervez Musharraf’s family in the United States have been giving donations to Obama’s campaign.  ”President Pervez Musharraf’s family members here are supporting and giving donations to a US presidential candidate who strongly opposes the Bush administration policy of supporting and keeping the retired general in the presidency,” it says.

The Daily Times, in an analysis by former Pakistani foreign secretary Najmuddin A Shaikh, says there would be little difference between Obama and the Bush administration on the need to hunt out al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan — if needs be through unilateral U.S. action – and on keeping its nuclear weapons safe. What the writer sees is a difference in tone,  which would be welcomed in Pakistan:

“What one can expect, however, is that Obama will be less averse – as the candidate for change – to recognising that extremism in the Muslim world flows from causes other than religious injunctions, no matter how this may be portrayed by so-called spokesmen for Islam or misguided scholars in the West,” he says. “He certainly will not be talking about crusades nor will he oppose direct talks with adversaries.”

But what strikes me is how this optimism about Obama may be offset by the United States in general taking a harder line against Pakistan, regardless of who wins the presidential elections.  A couple of months ago,  in a blog on Obama’s policies on Pakistan, I wrote about how he supports unilateral strikes on al Qaeda targets in the country.

Pakistan boys in South WaziristanSince then, the background noise in the United States about the need to attack al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan has increased —  to the point where you wonder whether any difference in style and substance Obama might bring would be drowned out by a hardening shift in public opinion towards taking a more aggressive stance.

One blog I came across, calling itself the Danger Room on, argues that Pakistan is in fact al Qaeda’s best base for planning attacks on the United States and Europe, since unlike more unstable places like Iraq where the United States is free to use force, the group flourishes in countries where there is a reasonable amount of state control.

“Pakistan’s better infrastructure, weak counterterrorism capacity, ambivalent counterterrorism policy, and increasingly prickly sovereignty issues gives al Qaeda a more stable platform to train, shield and export personnel-everything a terrorist group needs to organize an attack against targets in the West, as a string of plots now seem to show,” it says.

There are arguments against this — the most obvious being that al Qaeda developed first of all in the chaos of Afghanistan — but it’s worth reading to see where the tide of public opinion might be headed.


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