In the hundred some days since Barack Obama took office, a number of interesting developments have taken place relating to how the new US administration views Pakistan. Can some of these be taken as indicators of another US policy shift towards Pakistan?
On April 30, marking his hundred days in office, Obama commented extensively on Pakistan. He referred to the political government in Pakistan as “being extremely fragile”, that it “doesn’t have the capacity to deliver basic services: schools, health care, rule of law or a judicial system that works for the majority of the people” and “consequently, it is very difficult for them (the Pakistan government) to gain the support and loyalty of their people”.
He added: “I’m confident that we can make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe. Primarily, initially, because the Pakistani army recognises the hazards of these weapons falling in the wrong hands”, and again, “On the military side (in Pakistan) 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”. Further, “we will work with Pakistan and Pakistanis; we have strategic interests there, which we will protect at all costs.”
Now Obama is not somebody who makes statements without giving them deep consideration; and this only a week before Zardari led a delegation to Washington for joint talks with the US and with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai.
Prime Minister Gilani’s riposte was immediate when, the next day, in response to a question by a journalist on Obama’s statement, he stated that “the nine year long US support to a military dictator wakened the political government”, and that “democracy has now taken root, parliament is supreme and things will improve”.
Interestingly, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the largest opposition party, the PMLN, also issued a statement in support of the political government, almost duplicating the prime minister’s comments.
Responding to the hue and cry evoked in Pakistan by Obama’s statement, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, in an obvious ‘damage control’ effort, attempted to clarify the president’s comments, referring to the implications drawn from them as ‘journalistic gobbledygook’ and emphasised the fact that President Zardari was among the first national leaders to be invited by Obama to visit the US. Interestingly, however, his clarifications were made to the Pakistani media and were not covered domestically in the US.
During the Bush era, Sharif was being deliberately ignored by the US since Bush had put all his eggs in the PPP basket, and Nawaz was considered a little right of centre. However, after the hugely successful Long March, which was led by Nawaz Sharif’s party, he has emerged as a serious contender on Pakistan’s political scene. What is more, he has come out fairly strongly against the religious extremists. Consequently, a number of American officials have been meeting him regularly.
So what are the implications of all this? That Obama is conscious of the fact that in the current military leadership lies the hope of Pakistan’s survival is obvious; that he also trusts the military to secure our nuclear arsenal, rather than the politicians, was also unambiguously stated. His criticism of the current political leadership centres on Zardari, who has been running Pakistan almost as a civilian dictator, secure in the knowledge that the army has demonstrated its intent of letting democracy run its course.
Those that have interpreted Obama’s comments as encouragement for the military to take over are very mistaken. If a military takeover occurred, the US would probably live with it but, like Pakistan’s military leadership, the US is also aware that it would not be in Pakistan’s best interests.
I am inclined towards the view that Obama’s words were directed at Zardari and were quite clearly intended as a warning. One part of his message is to repeat the words I wrote in an earlier article: “the days of getting something for nothing are over”. The second part of his message is again clearly, that if the Pakistan Army has realised that our greater threat is from the extremists, foreign and domestic, in our midst, and not from India, then it is high time that Zardari et al also did.
It is also a warning that ‘peace deals’ with militants that cede territory and give space to the militants — which have been opposed by the army and make it increasingly difficult for it to retake lost territory — will not be acceptable to the US. Each time a military operation is thwarted mid-way, the people lose faith and become inclined to accept the Taliban. The statement that the US would “protect its strategic interests in Pakistan” clearly draws its red line.
Though this has not been spelt out, from the pledge to protect US strategic interests and the acknowledgement that the Pakistan Army has ‘begun to realise that the real threat is from internal elements, not India’, it can be concluded that Obama is encouraging the decision to have a permanent military presence in the ‘recaptured’ troubled areas. In fact, this is an obvious necessity since each time the army moves out of the recaptured areas, the Taliban return and fill the vacuum.
Finally, it is also a clear warning that the political dispensation must begin to deliver domestically, in terms of good governance, failing which they are likely to lose domestic support, and that, were it to happen, the US would not bail Zardari out. They now consider Nawaz Sharif a serious and acceptable alternative.
This article is a modified version of one originally written for the daily National. The author is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)
Article reproduced by permission of DT