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Three nations, three stories —Rafia Zakaria

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rafiazakriaThe symbolic meeting between American, Pakistani and Afghan leaders brought together three countries whose relations are marred by mistrust based on broken promises on all sides

In the cavalcade of photo opportunities and press conferences that took place this past Wednesday during trilateral talks between the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, much was said about three nations coming together to combat the common challenges posed by terrorism. Time and again, Afghan, Pakistani and American leaders stood in close proximity, an agreement was signed, promises made and reassurances given to attest to the commonality of the task before the three democratic nations.

So commendable were the efforts at unison and cordiality between Obama, Karzai and Zardari that it was almost possible to forget the differing political realities facing each nation.

Consider first the Obama administration’s task of actually fighting the war whose moral rightness was one of the centrepieces of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The American public, having elected Obama, places huge stock in the idea that the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq made that expansionist expedition by the Bush Administration a morally unjustifiable incursion into foreign territory.

Yet precisely what absolves Iraq indicts Pakistan. Unlike Iraq, Pakistan does possess nuclear weapons and thus, in American eyes, if the war in Iraq was wrong simply because WMD were never found, their presence in Pakistan eliminates any moral objections to taking a tough stance against that country.

Based on this core logic, President Obama has described American interests in the region as geared towards “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan”. The primary political constraint facing the Obama administration in its dealings with Pakistan thus is to retain a sufficient contrast from its neo-conservative predecessors.

In this very spirit thus, the meeting at the State Department between the two presidents and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton featured much attention on the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The tangibility of the memorandum, its commitment to the construction of a road to facilitate trade between the two countries, signified a “concrete” achievement unlike the intangible and unaccountable blank cheques written to Pakistan by the Bush administration.

The amicability between Zardari and Karzai, if forced, was a similar emblem of contrast signifying again the Obama administration’s success at engendering concessions where the Bush administration had been unable to procure even a handshake.

For Afghans, the pomp and circumstance of the talks in Washington came at a particularly tragic moment. While the profuse apologies delivered by both Secretary Clinton and President Obama may have provided some momentary respite and rhetorical contrast from the obstinate silences of the Bush administration, the increase in American troop presence is hardly a harbinger of an end to civilian casualties.

Put simply, the purported warmth and change in tenor of the Obama administration, while welcome to American ears, may be found lacking in sincerity by Afghans who have received only a fraction of the development aid promised to them, and now await an even larger American troop presence directed explicitly toward counter-insurgency as opposed to development.

As the list of promised and undelivered projects gets ever longer, each new photo-op featuring a vastly unpopular president is unlikely to go very far in producing the hope that has long evaded the country.

Similar scepticism marks the mood in Pakistan. Even as President Obama promised unwavering support to Pakistan in the difficult times ahead, he placed primary emphasis on the central American goal of “defeating Al Qaeda” in light of the “evidence of the future offered by Al Qaeda and its allies. A future full of violence and despair.”

This focus on Al Qaeda was unsurprising but coming as it did in the midst of an exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Swat, it did little to quash Pakistanis’ suspicions regarding American motives in the region. Even as support was promised to Pakistan’s democracy, no commitments were offered by either by President Obama or Secretary Clinton to halt the drone strikes that have killed over a thousand Pakistani civilians.

While there were hints at re-evaluating the drone strikes policy and some Washington officials pointed at the fact that they may be halted, the past statements supporting drone strikes given by prominent administration officials such as CIA Chief Leon Panetta do not point at any concrete steps in this regard.

The symbolic meeting between American, Pakistani and Afghan leaders thus brought together three countries whose relations are marred by mistrust based on broken promises on all sides. While fighting terrorism and extremism may certainly be a common goal, it remains questionable whether the scars created by history can be eliminated with such measures.

The camaraderie effected by both Karzai and Zardari for the benefit of American photo-ops may be some minimal achievement but is unlikely to eliminate the strained relationship between the two countries ravaged by war and terrorism. Similarly, sustaining fledgling democracies in Afghanistan and Pakistan may not go hand in hand with the stated American objective of destroying Al Qaeda at all costs.

Finally, the emphasis on strategic national security goals of the United States may continue to alienate the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who see themselves as paying for a secure United States.

Finally, while the talks focused on the three nations coming together, the absence of a fourth crucial player hinted again at the American belief that both history and geopolitics can be transcended by diplomatic pressure. The absence of any mention of India, which maintains a strong consular presence in Afghanistan, is constructing the Dilaram Highway and is arguably at the root of the distrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan, reflects this very perception.

In other words, the geopolitical slicing of South Asia in a way that serves American interests in Pakistan without jeopardising American trade and nuclear agreements with India represents an effort at diplomatic manoeuvring that may be too ambitious a project for even the Obama administration.

Diplomacy pivots on the drawing together of disparate interests and objectives and the delicate dance of incentive and compromise. The trilateral talks in Washington represent one episode in the ongoing saga between the three countries. It is undoubted that President Obama and his administration went to great lengths to both sound right, look right and present a visible change from the past. Yet for those facing realities on the ground – the beleaguered Afghans and the displaced and violence weary Pakistanis – patience is wearing thin. Mere words and superfluous agreements may provide little solace.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Article reproduced by permission of the author and DT\05\09\story_9-5-2009_pg3_5


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