Obama’s foreign policy challenges

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Dr Maleeha Lodhi

With Barack Obama’s election America has turned a new page in its history. Will this landmark moment be seized to give US foreign policy a new direction? An anxious world awaits a change in course from a man who on the election trail spoke repeatedly of the need to build a new international consensus to confront the transnational problems the world faces today.

President-elect Obama inherits daunting foreign-policy challenges at a time when his pressing preoccupation will be domestic: dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Some believe that domestic priorities will so consume his attention that he will initially opt for a cautious foreign policy approach. But this does not square with the imperative to take pressing decisions about the two wars Washington is involved in. Obama has to confront the consequences of both economic and strategic overreach.

In confronting a very troubled world Obama will need to address both the “urgent” and the “important.” Amongst the “important” tasks is to repair America’s reputation and rebuild trust, so gravely undermined by the unilateralist and overbearing global conduct of the US under President Bush.

The enthusiastic international approval of America’s presidential choice now provides Obama with an extraordinary opportunity to tap this goodwill to re-establish US credibility, especially in the Muslim world.

This is not simply a matter of “reaching out,” but of fundamental change in policy. It also means complying with the rules of the international system that the US expects other nations to observe. Obama should move decisively on his promise to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the most visible symbol of the Bush Administration’s disregard for rule of law.

America’s poor standing in the Muslim world is rooted in the unresolved disputes in which Washington has either been disinterested or singularly un-evenhanded, placing the security of Israel and its need for cheap oil above and beyond the concerns of others or considerations of justice and international law.

Among the steps Obama can take in the Middle East, and one of the “important” issues for him to deal with, is to signal an early resolve to address the issue of Palestine, which symbolises the sense of historical grievance and injustice of Muslims everywhere.

This, along with translating Obama’s election pledge to pursue talks without preconditions with Iran and Syria, will help reverse the belligerent approach that characterised the Bush years. Indeed, without engagement with Iran, no policy change will be possible, given Tehran’s influence on every issue in the region: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan.

Obama has already spelled out the direction of such realignment, pledging to wind down from Iraq in the next 16 months (whether this timetable is adhered to is an open question), and switch strategic focus and resources to Afghanistan. This would aim to correct the monumental blunder of the Bush Administration that took its eye off the ball from what Obama sees as global terrorism’s real front, to give strategic priority to an unnecessary war.

This contributed to the marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan, acknowledged in the closing months of the Bush administration in the leaked draft of the National Intelligence Estimate that represents the assessment of the US intelligence community’s 17 agencies and departments. This painted a “grim” picture of Afghanistan, describing it to be in a “downward spiral,” and cast doubts on the ability of Kabul to stem the rise in the Taliban’s influence. In similar vein, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in September that he was not convinced the US was winning in Afghanistan.

This prompted the Bush White House to order a major review of Afghan policy that is expected to conclude this month. The new head of Centcom, General David Petraeus, is engaged in his own review, while the Pentagon is conducting high-level reviews of Afghanistan.

Following his promise to give top priority to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama’s most urgent foreign challenge will be to overhaul Afghan strategy, and evolve a more regional approach on the premise that present policy has failed. He recognises that a more comprehensive and effective strategy entails greater focus on Pakistan, regarded as pivotal to the goals of defeating terrorism and stabilising Afghanistan.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan will require a new and integrated foreign-policy strategy that relies on soft, rather than hard, power. This means evolving a holistic approach that enhances the stability of Pakistan and Afghanistan in a mutually reinforcing way.

With Pakistan, the most significant first step should address the trust deficit. Indeed, for the first time in the history of these chequered ties, the relationship is held together precariously only at the leadership level. Building confidence should be among Obama’s pressing priorities, because on that will depend both the quantum and quality of cooperation that Washington and Islamabad will be able to mobilise in order to stabilise the region.

The place to start is to cease unilateral US strikes into Pakistan’s tribal area, which have inflamed public opinion and risk undercutting Islamabad’s counter-insurgency efforts and destabilising the country. Instead, Washington should help strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to contain the militants.

The Obama administration should recognise that Afghanistan’s stabilisation cannot be achieved at the expense of Pakistan’s security. Indeed, the military missteps and misplaced priorities of the Bush years have already led to a situation where the war in Afghanistan has increasingly been pushed into Pakistan.

Obama is committed to a troop surge in Afghanistan. But without a radical change in strategy, this will not reverse the collapse of security there, and likely worsen the situation. It risks miring the US in an unwinnable war without end. Moscow, after all, deployed over 100,000 troops at the height of its occupation of Afghanistan and failed spectacularly to subdue the resistance in a terrain that has been the graveyard of empires.

A rethink of strategy must start with redefining US goals, distinguishing between what is vital (disruption of terrorist networks) and what is best left for Afghans to undertake (building democracy, transforming society). So far, Washington has tried to do several things, in a piecemeal and inchoate way. This has resulted in the fusion between Pakhtun nationalism and Muslim radicalism which have fuelled the growing insurgency and risks turning this into a “Pakhtun war of liberation.” Over-reliance on military force has led to high civilian casualties and become a potent factor behind support for the Taliban.

A new strategy must seek to decouple Al Qaeda and the Taliban, by engaging the Taliban in a reconciliation process and holding out the offer for an eventual withdrawal of foreign forces in return for a cessation of attacks and suicide bombings and support for the creation of a viable Afghan military. Meanwhile, emphasis should shift from bombing campaigns to political accommodation and economic development and reconstruction. Efforts to build peace should be undertaken region by region, village by village, through power-sharing arrangements and disbursement of development resources via local communities. A new Afghan grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, should be convened to endorse such a process. This plan will also need to have all regional stakeholders on board. Washington should help to orchestrate a regional consensus that should also include Iran and Russia.

Pakistan’s political and military leadership, should for its part, evolve a credible plan for regional stabilisation, including a more coherent strategy for its own border regions, and share this with Washington while the various policy reviews are in progress. This should specify redlines so that the US understands the limits of cooperation dictated by Pakistan’s own security considerations and commits to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty. The window of opportunity for Islamabad to press its views should be thoughtfully and boldly utilised.

In doing so, Pakistan’s leadership should remind the US of the need to get down to addressing the “root causes” and “breeding grounds” of violent extremism and terrorism: poverty, deprivation, political injustice, and hopelessness. Engaging substantively with the grievances that terrorists exploit is not to be “soft” on terrorism, but to be “smart” about meeting the challenge.

The writer, a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, is a former ambassador to the US and the UK.



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