Nov 4, 2009

Obama's quest for a Pakistan policy

By Mushahid Hussain

Hillary Clinton's visit with a difference was probably the most significant event in Pakistan-American relations since the advent of President Barack Hussein Obama. She came, she saw, but while she did not quite conquer the "hearts and minds" of Pakistanis, Hillary at least earned their grudging admiration. She showed more guts than the bunkered-up Pakistan rulers, who refuse to leave the comfort and safety of their "5-star prisons" in Islamabad.

Unlike the aloof and abrasive Holbrooke, Hillary reached out to the "real" Pakistan. She got a peep into the emerging Pakistani society -- dynamic, vibrant, outspoken and self-confident. She seemed taken aback, used as visiting high-level Americans are to a sanitised Islamabad, where the officially-certified truth of the fawning ruling elite links sycophancy and servility to their self-perpetuation.

A profile of this "new" Pakistan is instructive, with three key ingredients. First, while the "old" Pakistan was politically a "one-window operation" -- monolithic and centrally-guided -- today's multiple power centres go beyond the military-security Establishment or the traditional political elite, and these now include the fiercely-independent media, an assertive civil society, confident young men and women with faith in their country's future, and a free judiciary that for the first time is truly an autonomous player.

Second, in contrast to the "old" Pakistan where the political elite was united in its belief that the road to Islamabad lies through Washington, the "new" Pakistan has little time for 'business-as-usual' political shenanigans, an absence of fear of power and authority, and no "Holy Cows."

Third, there is a broad popular consensus woven around a rejection of the mediaeval mindset and terrorism of the extremists, the corruption and capitulation of the ruling elite, and the hubris and diktat emanating from Washington.

While Pakistan's fourth flirtation with the United States goes through its predictable course of romance-disillusionment-distance, there is some good news and bad news regarding Washington's Afghanistan policy. First, the good news. Unlike Lyndon Johnson and George W Bush, Barack Hussein Obama is not allowing his generals to lead him to "Vietnamistan," as critics are calling the escalation in Afghanistan. As seven meetings of his "war council" demonstrate, Obama has bid goodbye to the non-starter that was his "Af-Pak" strategy. The smart politician that he is, Obama would not want his presidency to sink in the mountains of the Hindukush, hence the "review and reflect" mould.

But the bad news is that the Obama administration remains clueless on Pakistan and Afghanistan. They know what they don't want to do -- not escalate to such an extent that the US will end up facing another quagmire. But they still don't know what they should be doing or how to go about it.

After "Afpak" is dead and hopefully buried, here's what Pakistan should tell Washington on how to go about a doable strategy:

-- Trust Pakistan as an ally, and treat Pakistanis with the respect and dignity they deserve. After all, they have the highest stakes and suffered the most as the "eye of the storm" since the 30-year unrelenting war in Afghanistan (attempts at encouraging a civil-military divide amongst "good" and "bad" Pakistanis won't work);

-- Don't make Afghan policy hostage to a failed and flawed ruler in Kabul, who neither has credibility nor any legitimacy. Cobble together a government of national unity in Afghanistan, and do it quickly. Karzai today is just another Babrak Karmal;

-- Stop treating terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan as only a "Pakhtun problem." The Pakhtuns, on either side of the Durand Line, are suffering the most. They have faced death, destruction and displacement with fortitude. The Pakhtuns are the most hardworking of the ethnic groups living in Pakistan, with a deeply democratic and egalitarian ethos. During a conference at NATO headquarters in July 2007, Khalid Pashtoon, an Afghan MP from Kandahar, told the gathering that notwithstanding tall clams of expansion of the Afghan National Army (ANA), representation of Pakhtuns from the troubled southeastern Afghanistan in the ANA was still less than 1 percent;

-- Remember, the road to stability in Kabul now lies through Pakistan, so its security and strengthening should be paramount, not the other way around. Pakistan, with a functioning, modern, state infrastructure, is doable with greater intelligence coordination and fashioning of a fresh, comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, which the country still lacks. American-style "nation-building" in Afghanistan is not doable.

"Af-Pak" lies buried for a combination of reasons. It was cobbled together in a hurry based on certain assumptions, notably a distrust of Pakistan military-security establishment's intentions regarding extremism, and confidence in the Kabul administration's ability to serve as an anchor of US political strategy in Afghanistan. Both have been disproved by subsequent developments.

Much has happened in the region since then. Pakistanis have demonstrated unprecedented resolve, unity and determination to protect the vision of their Founding Fathers regarding their country, as the successful military operations in Swat-Malakand and South Waziristan demonstrate. The US now has no political prop to its military strategy, especially after the disastrous election fiasco in Afghanistan.

There has been the first official interaction between the Indian government and the ISI, and a softening of the Indian stance on Kashmir, with a renewed willingness to "talk to all, without preconditions." This change of heart in New Delhi is partly premised on a fear of the resurgent Maoists (who now influence 20 of India's 29 states) and on the fiery polemics between China and India, the first such strident exchange in 30 years.

For the future, three core areas of distrust and conflict remain in Pakistani-American relations. And unless these are resolved by the Obama administration, neither the bilateral relationship nor any US strategy in Afghanistan will succeed.

First, the two sides view their enemies differently -- the US does not view our enemies within as their foes nor do we view their adversaries in Afghanistan as our threats. Hence, a mutual lack of cooperation in tackling each other's enemies, whose most recent manifestation was the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan timing the closure of check posts on their side with the Pakistan strike in Waziristan.

Second, India and its role in Afghanistan are viewed differently in Islamabad and Washington, with the latter brushing aside Pakistani concerns and taking no interest or measures to stop the growing proxy war between the two rivals in Afghanistan.

Third, the US views the Pakistan military and security services essentially in an adversarial light, to be contained, controlled and "cut down to size." Washington conveniently overlooks the fact that the main threat to the democratic dispensation is not from any budding Bonapartists waiting in the wings, but from the same reasons – "bad governance and increasing corruption" -- that Obama mentioned in his stern phone call to Karzai on Nov 2. These issues, vital for Pakistan's stability and democracy, were in the original Biden-Lugar bill, but are strangely missing from the final legislation, for reasons best known to Washington.

Irrespective of what Obama decides for Afghanistan, the Pakistani state is already in the process of reinventing itself, a process that has been hurt by US ignorance and arrogance regarding its much-maligned ally. The challenge for Obama is to fashion a Pakistan policy that matches the new realities in the region, rather than reflecting an old, outmoded mindset.

The writer is a senator and senior political analyst. Email: mushahid.

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