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The Obama strategy: risks and opportunity

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maleehalodhiDr Maleeha Lodhi

President Barack Obama’s strategy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan unveiled on March 27 has set the broad parameters for a new approach. But the test of this strategy will come in translating it into a workable plan of action and in its actual execution. As the devil is always in the detail, close consultations with Pakistan and Afghanistan will remain critical if a viable and implement able plan is to be evolved, that rests on broad consensus.

From Pakistan’s perspective several aspects of Washington’s interagency review are consistent with its views and represent positive shifts in policy. But other elements of the revised approach are grounds for concern and reservations. While the two countries are in agreement over the principal goals, differences in tactics and approach will have to be reconciled and harmonised. President Obama has acknowledged that Pakistan is pivotal for the new strategy to work. This makes it all the more necessary for Washington to adjust its policy approach to Islamabad’s concerns.

Washington’s new strategy defines the core goal to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and prevent their return. This prioritisation of the US-led mission, emphasis on a civilian surge in Afghanistan to step up reconstruction and development, willingness to negotiate with the Taliban, expedite building Afghanistan’s capacity to shoulder its own security, committing more assistance to both nations and addressing narcotics, are among objectives that converge with Pakistan’s views.

Islamabad’s long held view has included the following key elements: a) insurgencies cannot just be addressed militarily but have to be neutralised primarily by political means: b) An adequately resourced development surge is essential to win hearts and minds; c) the reconcilable Taliban should be separated from Al Qaeda and brought into the political mainstream; d) the Afghan security sector must be strengthened while ensuring that the security forces reflect Afghanistan’s ethnic balance; and e) the narcotics trade must be curbed as it fuels the insurgency.

It is apparent from this that Pakistan and the US have many shared goals. But much turns on how these are realised, by what means and in which timeframe. Any effort to set political timelines would compound, not solve problems. Speculation in Washington that President Obama wants to show results in time for the midterm Congressional elections next year (November 2010) is cause for worry. To place the task of dealing with such complex and imposing challenges into the constraints of a timetable dictated by the American election cycle is unrealistic, to say the least.

But it is certain aspects of the new strategy itself that are a source of significant concern in Islamabad. The military escalation dimensions of the strategy pose the greatest anxiety. These dimensions suggest that for all the new speak from Washington that the region’s security problems cannot be addressed in military terms alone, substantial reliance is still being placed on military means by the US-led mission.

President Obama’s decision to send an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan is fraught with risk for Pakistan. Increased military engagement on Pakistan’s border would escalate rather than diminish the threat of instability in Pakistan. This is so for several reasons. A military surge could lead to: a) a likely influx of militants and Al Qaeda fighters into Pakistan; b) increase in the vulnerability of US-NATO supply routes through Pakistan as the supply needs would possibly double; c) influx of Afghan refugees to escape the intensified fighting; and d) a spike in violence as terrorist reprisals will predictably intensify.

An even more significant worry for Islamabad is the military escalation signalled by the focus on rooting out “safe havens” in Pakistan’s border region as reflected in President Obama’s suggestion that if Pakistan did not take action, the US would. This seemed to imply a widening of the war into western Pakistan even if the president said later in an interview that he would consult Pakistani leaders before terrorist hideouts are pursued.

This acknowledgement of the red line of Pakistan’s sovereignty has still left open the prospect of increased Predator strikes against targets in FATA. This foreshadows a risky course as this will only inflame public opinion in Pakistan, and have destabilising effects. Drone attacks have already drawn condemnation from the National Assembly, as well as the Frontier and Balochistan legislatures. No policy, overt or covert, which is vehemently opposed by the people is sustainable. The presumed tactical gains of these strikes must be set against the costs in terms of undermining strategic goals. This approach also ignores the fact that Al Qaeda has to be defeated in the ideological battle because it is its ideology that finds followers, ever ready to replace those “taken out.”

Such a perilous approach should be abjured in favour of the only viable one based on intelligence- and technology-sharing to enable Pakistan and its forces to address the terrorist threat in their own territory. The US should show strategic patience as well as respect for a sovereign country in deeds not just words.

The two countries will need to close the gap in their perceptions, and especially how they identify the strategic centre of gravity of the threat that has to be addressed. Islamabad has long argued that the core of the problem and its solution lies in Afghanistan while acknowledging that support for the insurgency is provided by fighters using Pakistani soil. In Washington’s view it is the safe havens in Pakistan that are now the central front of the battle to defeat international terrorism. Islamabad believes that US strategy downplays the fact that the situation in FATA is the consequence of the collapse of security in Afghanistan and not the other way around.

Islamabad also finds unsettling the notion of treating Pakistan and Afghanistan’s border region as a “single theatre of combat,” not least because the security trajectories, causes, contexts and capacities are so different and because it would be a grave error to think one size will fit both. If the flawed concept of AfPak has achieved anything so far, it is to unite the militants on both sides of the border in a new alliance to resist the impending military troop reinforcements in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration recognises that the attainment of its redefined goals depend critically on Pakistan’s stability. That is the rationale for the economic and security assistance that Washington has vowed to provide Pakistan. But Islamabad would take exception to the proposed conditionalities and benchmarking of the aid, linking this to its counter terrorism performance. In stating that Washington will not provide a blank check to Pakistan, President Obama has struck a note that is counterproductive to the aim of the ostensible incentive. This stance reinforces the transactional nature of the relationship that Pakistanis so resent and strengthens rather than breaks from the paradigm of treating Pakistan as hired help rather than valued ally.

While the need for accountability to Congress is something many Pakistanis readily understand, the heavy-handed manner of pressing such accountability will not win Washington hearts and minds. The metrics US officials say are being developed in consultation with Congress for such benchmarking can be a source of friction in the relationship, recalling an unhappy history of legislative-driven sanctions. Senator John Kerry’s comments in an interview that these metrics might include checks on whether Pakistan is moving its forces away from its border with India to concentrate on the insurgent threat in the west will raise hackles in Islamabad. Any effort to institute conditions that aim to change Pakistan’s national security calculus would be misguided and doomed to fail. No country’s national security priorities or structures can be reconfigured from outside.

President Obama’s new strategy will confront many challenges. No challenge perhaps is more important in this initial phase as that of ensuring that Islamabad and Washington are able to harmonise their policy and tactical approaches, resolve mutual suspicions and close their perception gaps in a spirit of openness and candour. President Obama has promised to revise his strategy when deemed necessary. The visit to Pakistan of special representative Richard Holbrooke, the chairman of the joint staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the commander of Centcom, General David Petraeus, provides an opportunity to Islamabad to urge the US to do just that.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.


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