Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Obama and Pakistan: A die waiting to be cast

Will President-elect Obama's "new beginning" mean a new U.S. war -- in Pakistan's terrorist havens bordering Afghanistan?

Presenting his "national security" team Monday, Obama was circumspect:

"We're going to have to bring the full force of our power -- not only military but also diplomatic, economic and political -- to deal with those threats. Not only to keep America safe but also to ensure that peace and prosperity continue around the world."

But early in his race for the Presidency, on Aug. 1, 2007, he was very precise about what he would do as Supreme Commander:

"I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges, but let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains [of mostly lawless tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan] who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

Pakistan's then foreign minister in the since-resigned Musharaff government, Khusheed Kasuri, assailed Obama's "very irresponsible statement," and Pakistani protests against the candidate's remarks included the very public burning of a U.S. flag in Karachi.

The new Pakistan government -- headed by Asif Ali Zardari -- is just as opposed to U.S. military action in the tribal areas. The Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani,
said in September at a presentation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington:

"Pakistan will not allow foreign troops to conduct operations on Pakistani soil. Never."

Haqqani cannot be stereotyped as a super-nationalist or creature of Pakistan's military. A journalist as well as diplomat, he has a inside-out understanding of U.S. interests from having been a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a professor at Boston University.

At the Carnegie event, Haqqani elaborated on why Pakistan was unalterably opposed to unilateral U.S. military action in his country:

"...if you go and just conduct the operation like this latest one in which you don’t get any identifiable target, then all you do is enrage people and create ill will. And that is not what you need if you are going to have a holistic approach to fighting terrorism. You need the people to support those who fight terrorism rather than those who are on the side of the terrorists."

Haqqani maintains that contrary to most perceptions in the U.S. media, Pakistan's military is making gains in those tribal areas that have been terrorist havens. He says the U.S. must be patient and give Pakistan time to gain control in the northwest, and to complete the exit of the military from politics.

But will the Obama administration be heedful? Frustrated by its inability to subdue the Taliban rebels in the Afghanistan war, the U.S. is, inch by inch, moving the battle to Pakistan's northwest, where rebels and terrorists hide and incubate. Based on his public statements, Obama appears ready to make even bolder incursions -- to protect the U.S. and its vital interests.

If Obama indeed pursues this interventionist course, what will happen to the nation of Pakistan? Will the military, which had controlled the government for more than a decade, reverse its decision to withdraw from politics -- signaled by the resignation of Musharaff in early 2008? Will Islamic militants in an already fragile nation state manage to seize control or at least be a partner in a coalition government?

In October, during the U.S. presidential campaign, President Zardari gave high government awards to Obama's VP running mate, Joseph Biden, and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar for their legislation to give Pakistan $7.5 billion in non-military aid over five years. The awards seemed to indicate at least a tacit acceptance of the bill's language regarding U.S. military aid to Pakistan -- that it would not be given unless the U.S. secretary of state certified that Pakistani security forces "are making concerted efforts to prevent al Qaeda and associated terrorists groups from operating in the territory of Pakistan."

The Biden-Lugar bill will be taken up by the House and Senate when the new Congress convenes in January. If it passes, will Obama -- who has made it clear that he will be the last word on setting U.S. foreign policy -- give it a chance to succeed? Or will he decide to expand the Afghanistan war to northwest Pakistan?

Depending on which way he goes, Pakistan could be his Iraq.

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