Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
When President Barack Obama unveiled his plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, he promised to involve other countries with a stake in the region, including the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China. But a major sticking point in enlisting regional support has been distrust over the United States’ long-term intentions for Afghanistan. Washington has never been able to shake off suspicions that it is using its battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda to establish a permanent military presence in the region.
In that context, Obama’s statement during his speech in Cairo that the United States is not seeking to set up permanent military bases in Afghanistan is rather interesting:
“Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.”
It will be worth watching to see whether the Obama administration is able to build on this to win more regional support for its policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But at the same time, it has to avoid feeding Pakistani fears that the United States might one day abruptly leave the region, just as it did when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
With President Hamid Karzai now looking all but unassailable in Afghanistan’s August election, two articles out this week – one from Washington and the other from India – offer mirror-image analyses of President Barack Obama’s handling of the Afghan leader. They should really be read as companion pieces since both offer insights into the workings of the Obama administration and the complexities of Afghan politics. Reading both together also highlights how different the world looks depending on your perspective, whether writing from America or Asia.According to this article in the Washington Post by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (highlighted by Joshua Foust at Registan.net) the Obama administration had decided to keep Karzai at arm’s length. It says Obama’s advisers faulted former President George W. Bush for forging too personal a relationship with Karzai through bi-weekly video conferences and as a result creating such cosiness that it became hard for his administration to put pressure on the Afghan government.”It was a conversation. It was a dialogue. It was a lot of ‘How are you doing? How is your son?’” it quotes a senior U.S. government official who attended some of the sessions as saying. “Karzai sometimes placed his infant son on his lap during the conversations.”"Obama’s advisers have crafted a two-pronged strategy that amounts to a fundamental break from the avuncular way President George W. Bush dealt with the Afghan leader,” the report said. ”Obama intends to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials. The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funnelling more money to local governors.”Retired Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, has a rather different reading on the wisdom of the Obama administration’s approach. In this article in the Asia Times Online, headlined What Obama could learn from Karzai, (highlighted by Marie-France Calle on her French-language blog), he says the Americans allowed themselves to be outmanoeuvred by the Afghan President by keeping him at arms-length.”In retrospect, United States President Barack Obama did a great favour to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by excluding him from his charmed circle of movers and shakers who would wield clout with the new administration in Washington,” he writes. “Obama was uncharacteristically rude to Karzai by not even conversing with him by telephone for weeks after he was sworn in, even though Afghanistan was the number one policy priority of his presidency.”But Karzai, he says, had the last laugh, as the opprobrium heaped upon him by the west raised his standing in Afghan eyes. Karzai had been able to manoeuvre himself into a strong position through weeks of Afghan-style backroom negotiations, capped by a decision by a popular candidate to pull out of the election race.”The Afghan experience with democracy offers a good lesson for Obama: it is best to keep a discreet distance and leave the Afghans to broker power-sharing on their own terms, according to their own ethos and tradition,” he writes. “However, Obama has a long way to go in imbibing the lessons of democracy in the Hindu Kush …”(Reuters photos: President Karzai, and Karzai with President Obama and Vice President Biden. Photos by Yuri Gripas and Jonathan Ernst)
Some readers have suggested that Pakistan’s politicians close ranks to beat back the Taliban advance, and that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party re-unites with the ruling coalition as a first step.
It is an idea that seems to be gaining traction, going by a spate of media reports The Financial Times said that Sharif could consider joining a unity coalition led by President Asif Ali Zardari, citing a senior member of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Muslim).
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?
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reports from Washington that the United States is seeking fundamental change in Pakistan: it wants Pakistan, presumably the military most of all, to stop thinking of India as the enemy.
And linked with this, it wants Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, accused of sponsoring militant groups to advance its security interests in the region, brought under effective civilian control.
Barely had President Barack Obama outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan meant to narrow the focus to eliminating the threat from al Qaeda and its Islamist allies, before the U.S.-led campaign ran into what was always going to be one of its biggest problems in limiting its goals. What does it do about the rights of women in the region?
The treatment of women has dominated the headlines this week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a new law for the minority Shi’ite population which both the United States and the United Nations said could undermine women’s rights. Karzai has promised a review of the law, while also complaining it was misinterpreted by Western journalists.
Read President Barack Obama’s speech on his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and compare it to what he said a year ago and it’s hard to see how much further forward we are in understanding exactly how he intends to uproot Islamist militants inside Pakistan.
Last year, Obama said that ”If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot.” Last week, he said that, ”Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda 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.”
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.
The debate about whether the United States should open talks with Afghan insurgents appears to be gathering momentum — so much so that it is beginning to acquire an air of inevitability, without there ever being a specific policy announcement.
The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, became the latest to call for talks when he told France’s Le Monde newspaper that reconciliation was an essential element. “But it is important to talk to the people who count,” he said. ”A fragmented approach to the insurgency will not work. You need to be ambitious and include all the Taliban movement.”
President Barack Obama is sending 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to fight a growing insurgency, but will they make a difference?
America and its allies have far fewer boots on the ground in Afghanistan than Iraq, although the former is larger, more populous and features more challenging terrain.