By Shaheen Sehbai
WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama’s 100th day prime TV time press conference on Wednesday night has created a grossly uneven playing field for President Asif Ali Zardari’s upcoming visit to Washington, as the candid and frank, almost brutal, observations of Obama have cut Zardari to a very small size besides giving the Pakistan Army much more importance than the Pakistani leadership would like to hear.
Likewise, the US president has also revealed some fundamental shifts in Pakistan’s India policy and the thinking of the Pakistan Army vis-a-vis India. Such a shift, willingly or unknowingly, has not yet been remotely reflected in the policies or statements of the civilian leadership of Pakistan. Obama’s assertion that the Pakistani civilian government was very fragile, without any capacity to deliver almost anything of consequence, was made in the same breath when he made several statements showing a superb degree of confidence in the Pakistan Army. It dug deep into the credibility and future of the civilian set-up, specially the fate of Zardari himself, who everyone in Washington knows, has been running Pakistan as a one-man show. So the criticism hits the Pakistani president right where it hurts.
These statements, as the US political system works, were not off-the-cuff remarks by a man thinking on his legs. Although, he was answering a question on Pakistan, Obama had come fully prepared to answer any question about the US policy on Pakistan and his 10-point statement was the ultimate crux of the numerous official briefings and position papers, which the US president has been receiving from dozens of national security, Defence Department, Pentagon, US Army and State Department officials and experts, besides the very knowledgeable scholars in Washington and US think tanks.
The 10-points of Obama’s statement were couched in these crisp and sharp words:
* I’m confident that we can make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure. Primarily, initially, because the Pakistani Army recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands.
* I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they are immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan.
* I’m more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile and don’t seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services: schools, healthcare, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people.
* As a consequence, it is very difficult for them (the government) to gain the support and the loyalty of their people.
* We need to help Pakistan, help Pakistanis.
* There is a recognition increasingly on the part of both the civilian government and the Army that this is their biggest weakness.
* On the military side, we are starting to see some recognition, just in the last few days, that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided and their biggest threat right now comes internally.
* Pakistani military is taking much more seriously the armed threat from militant extremists.
* We want to continue to encourage Pakistan to move in that direction. And we will provide them all of the cooperation that we can. We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognise that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don’t end up having a nuclear-armed militant state.
* I feel confident that that nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands.
Each of these points, when analysed, hits deep at the root of the legitimacy, competence and future of the civilian set-up in Pakistan and reflects the broader thinking in Washington that the Army probably is a better option, given the top priority Pakistan is now receiving.
For instance, he said, the nuclear arsenal was safe because ىthe Pakistani Army recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands.î
His expression of total no confidence in the civilian ability to deliver almost anything, not even as basic things as education, health and justice, was in fact an indictment that would be very hard for President Zardari to explain when he meets him at the Oval Office next week.
But to add insult to injury, Obama went on to say that ىit was very difficult for the government to gain support and loyalty of their people.î These words are shocking as they show that the US president was unwilling to accept the mandate which the PPP government claims to have on the basis of the Feb 18 elections.
He then went on to say the US needs to help Pakistan, and help Pakistanis, not the government, in other words.
It was also his view that even the civilian government and the Army have recognised that this perceived incompetence was ىtheir biggest weaknessî. By clubbing the Army and civilians on this point, Obama revealed what the Army leadership may have been privately saying to the US generals who have been visiting Pakistan feverishly in recent days.
Obama’s biggest breaking news was his observation that in the last few days, the Pakistan military had started looking at India not as the enemy number one. He saw ىsome recognition that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided and their biggest threat right now comes internally. Pakistani military is taking much more seriously the armed threat from militant extremists.î
These words mean that the Pakistani military leaders have been speaking up their mind much more openly with the Americans than the people or leaders of Pakistan. Within Pakistan, there is yet no word that the Army has been misguided in its thinking that India was not a mortal threat.
If there have been some secret understandings and assurances given by the US generals to their Pakistani counterparts, then the Pakistanis, their parliament, the prime minister or the president have either not been taken into confidence, or if the leaders are on board, someone is playing big games with the people behind their backs.
The people of Pakistan have not yet been told that India is no longer an enemy and the eastern borders are safe. If this is so, has there been any pullout of the Army away from that border, or will there be in the coming days. No one knows yet. But Obama certainly does because he has hinted at the basic shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Or may be there have been assurances given to him on that count.
And all that, according to the US president, has been done by the Pakistan military, not the government of President Asif Zardari. Lastly, the US president made it absolutely clear that stability in Pakistan was one of the biggest national security and strategic interests of America and this statement simply means that the US will protect this interest, come what may.
By implication, this also means that if Washington had to support a non-democratic, though stable government in Pakistan, it may be prepared to do so. This was not uttered by Obama in exactly these words, but reading into what he says means exactly the same. No one may, however, publicly admit this at this stage.
Diplomatic observers are unanimous in the view that just a few days before Obama meets Zardari for the first time, coming out with such brutally frank words about his administration is an ominous sign — Obama would like to see the back of Zardari and would welcome a political change in Pakistan.
But one consequence of this tough talking could be that the Pakistan Army would come out of its self-imposed seclusion and would assert itself more dominantly in critical Pakistani decision-making processes.
Some analysts, however, believe that if Zardari assures the US president that he would allow this to happen and would stop his one-man rule, he may be given the chance to continue. But for Zardari to keep smiling like he always does will then be a great challenge.
And for all those on whom Zardari depends for his US policy, either in Washington or in Islamabad, it is time to pack up and go home. It is absolutely certain that they would never have told the president of Pakistan that the president of the United States was about to throw a ton of bricks on our president’s head, just days before meeting him. Maybe even they had no clue he would.