INSIGHT: Obama’s double hyphenation —Ejaz Haider
Until now Pakistan could cite the obnoxious unilateralism of the Bush administration for creating difficulties for it and not allowing it to sell the counter-insurgency efforts to the public. Obama, by genuinely changing the approach, could deprive Pakistan of that argument
US President Barack Obama has appointed Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Holbrooke, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and broker of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords which ended conflict in Bosnia, has had a long and distinguished career as diplomat, writer, academic and businessman.
The appointment has caused some consternation among analysts in Pakistan because it seems to hyphenate Pakistan and Afghanistan while leaving India out of the equation.
Is the apprehension justified?
Consider three main strands in Obama’s approach to the war on terror.
The first is about drawing down and ultimately extricating from Iraq. Obama has consistently argued that America is fighting the wrong war in Iraq. This was one of the main planks of his campaign and he could make that argument with conviction because he had voted against the war in Iraq.
Linked with this is the second strand, fighting the “right” war — i.e., finishing the job in Afghanistan. Freeing resources from Iraq would help reinforce forces in Afghanistan. However, as he argued during his campaign and continues to do so, Afghanistan cannot be streamlined without Pakistan’s support. The Lines of Communication stem from Pakistan and sustain the insurgency. That L of C has to be cut.
The third strand in the Obama strategy is the realisation that without addressing Pakistan’s security concerns, it is difficult to get Islamabad’s full cooperation in the war on terror. This is where India and the Kashmir issue come in.
For Obama, then, there is a linkage between US interests and vulnerabilities in Afghanistan for which Washington requires Islamabad, and Pakistan’s security concerns vis-à-vis India at the centre of which stands Kashmir. India holds the key to that.
There is double hyphenation here: Afghanistan-Pakistan; Pakistan-India. Since the days of the Clinton administration, Washington had de-hyphenated India and Pakistan, seeking to maintain relations with both but at different levels and for different reasons.
Obama has re-hyphenated India and Pakistan but — and this proviso is crucial — only to the extent of securing America’s core security interests in West Asia. Let no one think that Washington is about to undermine its overall relations with India.
Take a pause here and consider UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s statements on the Kashmir issue. Why did he say what he said and why is New Delhi so upset by his enunciations?
The answer to the first question is that London, always more prone to taking a holistic approach to these issues but weighed down because of the Bush administration, can sense the change Obama is trying to bring. Miliband voiced that when he wrote: “Although I understand the current difficulties, resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders.”
The similarity between Obama’s and Miliband’s arguments is striking. New Delhi’s knee-jerk response, begotten of a path-dependent approach to Kashmir, tends to ignore two important factors: the urgency for Obama to do something in Afghanistan by taking a different approach, and India’s own integration into the world system and with America that is beneficial but demands that New Delhi rethink its approaches to regional disputes.
In other words, if India wants to play big, it must act big and not manifest the pathology of a small power. Obama will not dilute engagement with India. But enhanced engagement will bring with it its own demands as Obama tries to change the paradigm on the war on terror while trying to improve overall security.
Of course, Obama will not overtly offend India by putting in place a special envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan-India. But discerning analysts in New Delhi know the fine print. Hence India’s unease over the prospect of an envoy.
As an aside, Daniel Markey’s recent piece in Foreign Policy (“So you want to be a special envoy...”) makes interesting reading because he makes no bones about Holbrooke’s brief — Afghanistan, Pakistan, India — even as he warns Holbrooke against the pitfalls and the degree of difficulty the latter is likely to face in fulfilling that brief.
So yes, that is as far as Holbrooke’s appointment goes. India is included. But so is Pakistan and the Obama administration expects Pakistan to do certain things. The style may be different, the approach more inclusive, but the endpoint is no different — eradication of terrorism and stabilisation of Afghanistan.
That puts Pakistan in the belly of the beast.
If anything, because the style is going to be different, the Obama administration is likely to ask Pakistan to do more at its end and expect that Islamabad would. And if it is genuine in taking into consideration all that Pakistan expects at its (Washington’s) end then, far from reducing the degree of difficulty, that fact alone shall enhance it for Pakistan.
Pakistan will be required to be transparent and effective in its counter-insurgency operations as well as in providing good governance to the people. One of the salient points of the Obama approach is to focus as much on projection of “soft” power as that of “hard” power. The current government is already quite unpopular and conditions are ripe for more political instability. What the Obama administration expects Pakistan to do would be difficult to deliver even for a strong, popular government. If the PPP and the PMLN finally decide to slug it out in the Punjab, all bets are off as far as political stability is concerned.
Important fact: until now Pakistan could cite the obnoxious unilateralism of the Bush administration for creating difficulties for it and not allowing it to sell the counter-insurgency efforts to the public. The Obama administration, by genuinely changing its approach, could deprive Pakistan of that argument. If that happens, the onus of doing things, and doing them right, will be squarely on Islamabad.
The question of how events are likely to unfold for Pakistan will therefore relate more to what Pakistan can deliver if the Obama administration keeps its end of the bargain. Answering that question is more important than waiting for Holbrooke to begin squeezing India’s neck on Kashmir.
Is Islamabad ready to deliver at its end?
Ejaz Haider is Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and Consulting Editor of The Friday Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org