Obama takes Afghan war to Pakistan

March 27, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama set out his strategy to fight the war in Afghanistan on Friday, committing 4,000 military trainers and many more civillian personnel to the country, increasing military and financial aid to stabilise Pakistan and signalling that the door for reconciliation was open in Afghanistan for those who had taken to arms because of coercion or for a price.

He said the situation was increasingly perilous, with 2008 the bloodiest year for American forces in Afghanistan. But the United States  was determined to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan”, he said, warning that attacks on the United States were being plotted even now.

But it is the emphasis on Pakistan that seems to be the most significant shift in the U.S. strategy since it went into Afghanistan more than seven years ago, with an avowedly aggressive carrot and stick approach. Time columnist Joe Klein said the most important aspect of the security review was a refocusing on the situation in Pakistan. “The terrorist safe havens in the tribal areas is the heart of the problem.”

Obama left little doubt that Pakistan was going to be front and centre of the war in Afghanistan, declaring this is where the top al Qaeda leadership was based.  And that their presence there posed a threat to not just America, but countries around the world from Europe to Africa and above all to Pakistan itself.

Here are some excerpts from his speech relating to Pakistan.

“In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al-Qaida and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al-Qaida’s leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe haven to hide, to train terrorists, to communicate with followers, to plot attacks and to send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.”

“But this is not simply an American problem — far from it. It is, instead, an international security challenge of the highest order. Terrorist attacks in London and Bali were tied to al-Qaida and its allies in Pakistan, as were attacks in North Africa and the Middle East, in Islamabad and in Kabul. If there is a major attack on an Asian, European or African city, it, too, is likely to have ties to al-Qaida’s leadership in Pakistan. The safety of people around the world is at stake.”

America, he said, wanted results from both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“And after years of mixed results, we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check. Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaida and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken — one way or another — when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets.”

Will Obama’s stratetgy work? If Pakistan played ball,  it would get an unprecedented amount of military and financial aid, several experts said. “President Obama understands to get the support of the Pakistani people, which will make it easier to get the help we need from the Pakistani government, it takes carrots. And his plan focuses squarely on that,” wrote Jon Soltz, a former U.S. army captain in Iraq, in the Huffington Post.

Soltz said an even more striking part of Obama’s strategy was his willingness to deal with those who were not hard core Taliban.

“There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who have taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. That is why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province,” Obama said.

In so doing and by signalling that he was ready to become partners with those who the United States was fighting today,  Obama had “given up the pipe dream of setting up a European-style democracy in Afghanistan, and instead has refocused our goals on a more urgent mission – protecting America and the world from terrorism” Soltz said.

But what about Pakistanis themselves? The popular All Things Pakistan blog noted that Obama had spoken to the Pakistani people and so invited them to comment on his remarks. Some of the early comments were generally positive, with one reader saying he was glad the United States had realised the high cost Pakistan was paying. “It is the Pakistanis who have been doing all the dying.”  .

(Reuters photos: President Barack Obama; Afghan women in Taloqan; Pakistani soldiers in Wana)




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