ANALYSIS: Obama, Pakistan and Afghanistan —Najmuddin A Shaikh
Obama has said that a resolution of Pakistan's disputes with India — specifically Kashmir — would help to ensure that Pakistan committed itself more fully to the battle against the violent extremism and terrorism that now pervade the Afghan-Pakistan border area
Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America at an inaugural ceremony which attracted one of the largest crowds ever seen in Washington. It was a fitting climax to the dazzling campaign an African American with a white mother, a Muslim Kenyan father and a Muslim Indonesian stepfather had waged to ascend to the most powerful office in the world.
His speech was a bravado performance but had it been otherwise, he would still have elicited an enthusiastic response, because for his American constituents he represents a break from the grimy eight years of the Bush administration and, perhaps equally importantly, a liberation from the stigma of discrimination against African Americans that had been part of the American political scene and that had sullied the image the Americans had of themselves.
Obama could suggest that they as a people as much as the government and as much as the greedy men of the financial world were responsible for the economic crisis in which American found itself. He could tell them that the challenges were real and that “they will not be met easily or in a short span of time”, but he could also reassure them that they would be met because “we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
For his American audience, this was perhaps the most important part of his speech. It echoed, if a recent poll is to be believed, the perception of most Americans that the recession would last for at least two years and that it would take two years and more to reform the healthcare system and to effect a withdrawal from Iraq, but that in five years they would be better off than they are now. 60 percent of the respondents in the poll conducted on the eve of the inauguration said that Obama would be a very good or good president.
It would be safe to assume that, barring an exceptionally sharp downturn in the economy or a complete failure of the proposed stimulus package, Obama will have a honeymoon with the voters that will last well beyond the traditional 100 days.
For his foreign audience in Europe, where his popularity rating is higher than even in America itself, his speech confirmed the expectation that he will recognise the need to work together with other important countries, abandoning the unilateralism of the Bush era.
In his speech, he recalled that “earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions”; that they understood “our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please”; and that security flowed from our “humility and restraint”. He asserted that “meeting new threats demanded even greater effort — even greater co-operation and understanding between nations”.
This is what the Europeans were anxious to hear. They probably found less palatable his next sentence, which said that “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan”.
This laconic reference to what are the two most important foreign policy issues confronting the new president was meant to remind the Europeans of the Obama expectation, elaborated upon in earlier speeches that the Europeans need to “do more” in Afghanistan: send additional troops, remove the caveats on their participation in combat against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and provide greater funding for the economic development of Afghanistan. European public opinion is certainly not in favour of any such effort. The same poll that gave Obama his high popularity rating in Europe also found that more than half the voters in the UK, France, Germany and Italy were resolutely against any more of their troops being sent to the Afghan theatre.
The “hard earned peace” that Obama is seeking in Afghanistan (and Pakistan, since for some time now the American security establishment and many who are now part of the Obama team see Afghanistan and Pakistan as one theatre) will have to be very largely an American endeavour.
In his speech, Obama carefully avoided using the phrase “war on terror” or referring to the Pak-Afghan border as the epicentre of terror, but by saying that “for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you,” Obama made it clear that this was going to remain a preoccupation of his administration.
This is why in his first official engagement after his inauguration, Obama met with his security team and received a briefing from General David Petraeus on his recent visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
So what form is the endeavour to forge peace in this theatre likely to take?
Taking Pakistan first, sharply etched in the minds of Pakistanis is Obama’s statement during the election campaign in mid-2007 that “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President [Pervez] Musharraf will not act, we will.” Obama has never retracted this statement, though in the presidential debate he did say that this did not mean that he wanted to attack Pakistan.
Other statements have suggested that he was modifying his position. In July 2008, he said that he wanted to devise a policy that “compels Pakistani action against terrorists who threaten our common security and are using the FATA and the Northwest Territories of Pakistan as a safe haven.” In the same month in another interview, he contended that too much US financial assistance to Pakistan has been military aid, and “not enough of it has been in the form of building schools and building infrastructure in the country to help develop and give opportunity to the Pakistani people.”
There is no doubt that the Biden-Lugar bill (now termed the Kerry-Lugar bill because Senator Kerry is now the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), which calls for the providing of $1.5 billion annually in economic assistance to Pakistan for a period of five years with the recommendation that it be extended for another five, has the new administration’s blessings and will probably have a high priority in the legislative programme that Obama will put forward to Congress.
There is also no doubt that this pledge will be the centre-piece that the new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will put on the table when the ‘Friends of Pakistan’ meet in March. It would not be surprising if assurances to this effect were held out by Vice President Biden when he visited Pakistan a few days ago.
Obama has also tried to emphasise that he believes that greater democracy would be one way of tackling the problem. In his message of congratulations to President Zardari in September, he praised the president for pledging to “return this office to its traditional stature, and return to Parliament the powers unconstitutionally appropriated to the presidency.” He went on to praise the president for the restoration of some of the judges of the superior judiciary, which he termed “an important step towards the restoration of a truly independent judiciary.”
Was this also something that was reiterated by Biden during his recent visit?
Obama has also said that a resolution of Pakistan’s disputes with India — specifically Kashmir — would help to ensure that Pakistan committed itself more fully to the battle against the violent extremism and terrorism that now pervade the Afghan-Pakistan border area. The Mumbai carnage and its devastating impact on the Indo-Pak dialogue have not made much difference to this thought. Whether any initiative that Obama takes will be any more successful than the Anglo-American effort in 1962 that led to 8 rounds of talks between foreign ministers Zulfikar Bhutto and Swaran Singh is another matter.
While all this indicates that Obama and his team want, for their own reasons, to promote democracy in Pakistan, to establish a durable US-Pak relationship, and work at easing Indo-Pak tensions, it is also apparent that events on the ground in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are a matter of grave concern. How Obama and his team will seek to tackle this will be examined in my next article.
The writer is a former foreign secretary