Will Obama chart his own course on Pakistan?

May 1, 2009

President Barack Obama’s statement on Pakistan at a news conference on Wednesday appeared to be more measured than the spate of alarmist comments about the country in the past week or so.  It is worth reading in full:

“Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  I want to move to Pakistan. Pakistan appears to be at war with the Taliban inside their own country.  Can you reassure the American people that, if necessary, America could secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and keep it from getting into the Taliban’s hands or, worst-case scenario, even al Qaeda’s hands?

THE PRESIDENT:  I’m confident that we can make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure — primarily, initially, because the Pakistani army, I think, recognises the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands.  We’ve got strong military-to-military consultation and cooperation.  I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they’re immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan; more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile and don’t seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services — schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of people.  And so as a consequence, it is very difficult for them to gain the support and the loyalty of their people.

So we need to help Pakistan help Pakistanis.  And I think that there’s a recognition increasingly on the part of both the civilian government there and the army that that is their biggest weakness.

On the military side, you’re starting to see some recognition just in the last few days, that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided, and that their biggest threat right now comes internally.  And you’re starting to see the Pakistan military take much more seriously the armed threat from militant extremists.

We want to continue to encourage Pakistan to move in that direction and we will provide them all the cooperation that we can.  We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognise that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don’t end up having a nuclear armed militant state.

Q    But in a worst-case scenario —

THE PRESIDENT:  I’m not going to engage —

Q    — military, U.S. military could secure this nuclear —

THE PRESIDENT:  I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals of that sort.  I feel confident that that nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands.  Okay?”


Obama’s acknowledgement that he was alarmed about Pakistan, and his reference to the military’s “misguided” obsession with India, have been widely reported.  But personally, I was struck by his comments that the real cause for concern was the fragility of the civilian government and its inability to deliver basic services — because, if nothing else, they seemed to echo more closely views written from inside the country.

Pakistani newspapers ran a couple of excellent news analyses earlier this week.  In this editorial in Dawn newspaperMohammad Waseem explains why there is such a cacophony of views about Pakistan, by comparing those expounding on it to the blind men who tried to make sense of an elephant by touching different parts of its body and reaching different conclusions about the nature of the beast. In the News International, Asif Ezdi picks up on what has become a recurring theme — that the struggle under way within Pakistan is not just between religious obscurantists and secularists, but between the great mass of the poor and the feudalandmilitary elite which dominates the country.  Unless the elite moves quickly to deliver social justice (the basic services mentioned by Obama), he says, the poor will continue to see the Taliban, with their speedy Islamic law and free schools, as a viable alternative

Do Obama’s comments, therefore, suggest a shift in U.S. thinking about Pakistan? The United States has traditionally been criticised by Pakistanis for heavy-handedness, buying Pakistan’s loyalty with heavy doses of aid while simultaneously bombing its territory with missile strikes from unmanned drone aircraft. Or are these merely reassuring words, offering style rather than substance?

There is clearly an intense debate under way within the Obama administration over how to handle Pakistan.


According to the New York Times, Obama and his advisers have been meeting almost daily to discuss Pakistan.  After announcing only weeks ago that Afghanistan and Pakistan were inextricably linked, it says, the administration is now trying to work out a Pakistan policy. “We’re no longer looking at how Pakistan could help Afghanistan,” it quotes a senior administration official as saying. “We’re looking at what we could do to help Pakistan get through this period.”

We know from history that U.S. presidents, particularly inexperienced ones, tend to be bombarded by conflicting advice from within their administrations and the military — whether it was Truman coming under pressure to use nuclear bombs in Korea, or Kennedy’s decision to go along with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.  So let’s not take anything individuals say at face value and assume it to be final Obama policy.

In this article in the Huffington Post, Sunil Adam complains that the current approach towards Pakistan continues the old Bush policies while adding the interventionism of the previous Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton. “Pakistan is an unconventional problem that demands an unorthodox response from an unassuming president,” he writes.

So what are the big issues likely to be debated within the administration, and which ultimately will have to be settled by Obama?

The drone attacks

According to this story by a Reuters colleague in Washington, the administration is divided on whether to widen drone missile attacks into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. The attacks so far have been restricted to Pakistan’s tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, but for several months now there has been speculation that Washington might widen the operation to target the Afghan Taliban leaders it believes are based in Baluchistan.

The drone attacks are already controversial. Pakistan complains they are an invasion of its sovereignty and are counter-productive since they cause civilian casualties that drive more people to support the Taliban and fuel anti-Americanism. U.S. officials (always speaking off the record since the CIA-operated drone attacks are not officially acknowledged) say they are an essential part of its strategy to disrupt al-Qaeda-linked militants who might otherwise be planning another 9/11.

For an interesting discussion on the drones, it is worth reading this article on TomDispatch, headlined Filling the Skies with Assassins. It asks how we will feel if the use of unmanned aircraft becomes the norm in wars between countries, so much so that all of us might eventually be threatened by them. From the U.S. right, this post in the American Daily Review also challenges the drone war escalation under Obama.

I recommend browsing the website of Lockheed Martin, which says it won contracts to supply Hellfire missiles to the U.S. Air Force’s Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles. Check out its descriptions and photos of the Hellfire missile to get a sense of the nature of U.S. warfare in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Obama’s comments about the United States having “huge nationalsecurityinterests” in Pakistan suggests there will be no halt to the drone attacks on the tribal areas. But will he authorise an escalation into Baluchistan?

The Pakistan Army 

The United States has traditionally preferred to deal with the military in Pakistan which it saw as more reliable than the country’s more unpredictable politicians. That view seems to continue to prevail in the U.S. military, if this story on Fox Newsis to be believed.  It quotes “individuals familiar with the discussions” inside the Obama administration as saying that General David Petraeus and senior administration officials believe the Pakistan Army is  “superior” to the civilian government  and could conceivably survive even if President Asif Ali Zardari’s government falls to the Taliban.

Yet as discussed on an earlier post, the Obama administration has stressed its commitment to civilian democracy in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis complain that the power of the military, encouraged over the decades by Washington, has prevented the development of a healthy civilian democracy in Pakistan, and the country can only really change if it permanently renounces military takeovers.  The Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has himself stressed his commitment to democracy. For Washington, it will require a leap of faith if it is no longer to see the military as the ultimate safety net that can guard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons against the Taliban, and accept the slower and more chaotic decision-making processes that come with democracy.

Will Obama take this leap of faith?

Relations between Pakistan and India

Diplomatically, this is one of the trickiest issues for the Obama administration since virtually anything it says is guaranteed to annoy one country or the other, if not both.

Washington wants the Pakistan Army to concentrate on fighting Islamist militants and to see them, rather than India, as the main threat to Pakistan.  (This is not just about whether Pakistan sends troops to its eastern or western border. Probably more important is whether it gives up all support for militant groups which it has nurtured to use against India — whether in Kashmir in the east or to curb India’s growing presence in Afghanistan in the west.)

Yet simply bashing someone over the head and telling them not to feel threatened is unlikely to yield results. During his election campaign, Obama suggested the United States could help resolve the Kashmir dispute in order to improve relations between India and Pakistan and encourage the Pakistan Army to focus on fighting Islamist militants. That idea was shelved after protests from New Delhi, particularly after last November’s attacks in Mumbai which India blamed on militants based on Pakistan. In an interview with India’s Outlook magazine, Bruce Riedel, who advised Obama on his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said it was unrealistic to expect India to move forward on improving relations with Pakistan “without further resolution of the Mumbai issue”.

India, in any case, is embroiled in a national election. Once a new government is in place next month, how will Obama balance the competing interests of India and Pakistan?

Aid for Pakistan

During his election campaign, Obama complained that U.S. military aid given to Pakistan to fight Islamist militants had been diverted into preparing for war against India. He promised to monitor much more closely how U.S. money going into Pakistan was spent.  Yet with Congress now trying to set conditions for aid to Pakistan, the Obama administration is discovering it does not want its hands tied as this would undermine its room for negotiation with Pakistan, according to this article on Politico.

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been extremely murky in the past, and one reason why nowadays it is difficult to untangle the web of Islamist militant groups that once thrived on secret U.S. funding for the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. How far will Obama insist on transparency in the future?


If Pakistan was once seen as secondary to Afghanistan, the suggestion now is that Afghanistan may end up becoming secondary to Pakistan. Of the two countries, a destabilised nuclear-armed Pakistan, with a population of nearly 170 million people, would be a far bigger nightmare for the United States.

Just as the United States argued that for it to succeed in Afghanistan, it needed a stable Pakistan, Pakistanis argue that instability in Afghanistan is washing into Pakistan. It’s probably too early yet to say whether the deteriorating situation in Pakistan will force a rethink of America’s strategy towards Afghanistan.  But the next Af/Pak review could include a rebalancing of the two.

Some time in the future, historians will study the decisions Obama made on Pakistan and judge whether he was right or wrong. Surrounded by his many military and foreign policy advisers,  will he try to follow their often contradictory recommendations? Or break out with something fresh?


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