OBAMA the president seems to be gradually distancing himself from Obama the Democratic candidate for the White House. Gone is the rhetoric that once threatened Fata’s invasion to take out the Taliban’s safe havens. Now the vitriol has given way to a sober assessment of the situation in the Afpak region, for he replied with a blunt ‘No’ when TheNew York Times asked him whether America was winning in Afghanistan. In what is seen as a move to open the door to reconciliation with the militants, the American president emphasised the need for recasting US policies with a three-pronged strategy to ensure that “Al Qaeda and extremists” do not have safe havens. More significantly, he had a word of praise for Gen David Petraeus, who reached out to Iraq’s Sunnis in a move aimed at isolating Al Qaeda. This policy worked in Iraq, he said, and believed military, diplomatic and development moves must be “aligned” to deny safe havens to the Taliban. Pakistan should welcome Obama’s statement not only because of the reconciliation he is talking about but also because he included Afghanistan and “the Pakistani region” in his new scheme.
Until recently, Pakistan was being harshly criticised by the American government and media for talking to the militants. The Americans were right up to a point, for one has to admit Islamabad’s own mistakes in the war on terror, the disastrous September 2005 deal with the militants in Fata, and, currently, the over-reliance on Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a doubtful character, to seek peace with the Swat rebels. But the basic principle behind Pakistan’s moves was sound, for it had been speaking for quite some time of the need to combine force with talks, while working for the economic development of the tribal belt.
What Pakistan and America must both remember is that there should be no deal from a position of weakness, and that peace should not mean a licence for the Taliban to establish virtually autonomous regions where they enforce their own concept of religion which violates basic norms of civilised behaviour. To be specific they cannot be allowed to oppress women, enforce conformity in dress, prayer and ritual, and close the doors of economic livelihood on barbers and tailors and the like because they pursue professions considered normal by humanity but which the Taliban regard as ‘un-Islamic’. If they agree to live in peace, the militants must abide by the contract in letter and spirit.