Obama, Afghanistan and Pakistan

Published: August 10, 2011
The writer, a former ambassador, is Senior Pakistan Visiting Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University

The writer, a former ambassador, is Senior Pakistan Visiting Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University

The end of the Cold War, globalisation and the media and technology revolution have triggered history-making changes. Some countries have handled them better than others. The US and Pakistan, in their own different ways, have not done well specially under the impact of 9/11. The US perhaps because of hubris and temptation to overreach; and Pakistan because of endemic failure of leadership and policies, lack of sense of national purpose and crisis of identity. They have ended up now at the receiving end of multiple issues, some of them affecting them both, to which, ironically, their relationship, past and present, had made a shared contribution. The US is bogged down in unending wars and so is Pakistan.

Obama is basically anti-war but as a presidential candidate had to own the Afghanistan war to prove that he had strong national security credentials. Having already rejected the Iraq war, he had no choice. He now knows, along with the majority of Americans, that the Afghanistan war cannot be won. And he has to bring it to a closure to rebalance US foreign policy and focus on economy and other pressing domestic issues. But equally importantly, he wants to get re-elected.

And for that he has to go back to the base that had elected him last time but is now somewhat estranged for the failure of the Obama promise. The base wants him to get out of Afghanistan. But strategic imperatives and mainstream public opinion in America dictate that the war should not look like a failure. Whether he can actually achieve it or not, he will try to create the impression by election time next year that he has reconciled these contrary objectives. That is what is driving his current Afghanistan strategy. Its symbolism is withdrawal but its substance is continued military engagement.

What will this solution be? Could it be peace with honour? I doubt it. Now the only realistic objective, given the time and resource constraints, is peace without dishonour, now or later. And, of course, withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014.

If Obama is re-elected, he can and will try for such a solution. If it works, well and good; if not, too bad. After all, some US presence will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, ownership of the war will have been passed on to the Afghans and, hopefully, with the help of regional players and strengthened non-Pashtun forces in a changed balance of power, the challenge of the Taliban can be managed. Technically, the war would have been over for the US. And that is good enough.

As for Pakistan, the US cannot retreat or walk away. Fighting terrorism is a very serious national security objective for any American leadership, specially if the threats are located in a nuclear armed country facing prospects of increased radicalisation. But that does not mean the US is going to embrace Pakistan. The US cannot really do much about changing Pakistan radically unless Pakistanis themselves want to change. But Pakistan is not ready for change; it neither has the compulsion or incentive to change nor, perhaps, the capacity. And the US is not ready for a meaningful long-term strategic commitment without this change.

The relationship will continue at a lower level of satisfaction for both sides. US-Pakistan intelligence cooperation will continue as will drone attacks and the troubled aid relationship.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • neel123
    Aug 11, 2011 - 3:56AM

    Quote from the article – ” But Pakistan is not ready for change; it neither has the compulsion or incentive to change …………” – unquote.

    Pakistan is being consumed in its own fire, sliding down the slippery slope and its very survival is at stake. For any attempt in reversing this trend and fighting out of the current situation to succeed, there is no escape route for Pakistan but to change.

    If this is not a compulsion or incentive then what it is ?


  • N
    Aug 11, 2011 - 7:10AM

    We have the compulsion and the incentive

    We are “islamic” and want to be the leader of all things “Islamic”- real and imagined
    We have nukes and LET to unleash
    We have India to hate and US to mock
    We have the army — sorry the army has us.
    We have rehman malik, zardari and musharraf…
    We have the khaki suited hamid gul and red beret zaid hamid
    We get easy arms, aid and relief….
    We have land to grab, and a fauji foundation to run..

    Enough compulsion and incentive


  • Aryabhat
    Aug 11, 2011 - 3:15PM

    Good article!

    In a way I am happy for the Partition of India. Let Pakistan reap the fruits of what it saw. Unless it see it that way or a really bitter thing happens, Pakistan will not change. Correct, no incentive to change.

    Once it realises its folly, it would hopefully change to tolerant way of life. Way of life of people who lived on bank of Indus. Who were called Hindus. Don’t panic. This is about a way of life, a tolarant, vibrant and way of wisdom. This isn’t about religion.

    One day, hopefully one day Pakistan will also be tolerant. It still has genes of South Asians. It is still in South Asia, not in Middle East. And How much ever you dislike, it will never be Arabia.

    One day, all 3 – India, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be same. It is made of same people. So it will.


  • Werd C
    Aug 11, 2011 - 6:27PM

    Ensuring the Final Surge Never Ebbs: As the sun sets on America’s combat mission in Afghanistan, President Obama should continue and strengthen programs designed to modernize and legitimize Afghanistan’s judicial system. See article http://bpr.berkeley.edu/?p=2813


    Aug 11, 2011 - 9:41PM

    The economic situation going worst all over the globe and i dont think he can win next election. pakistan will get better only after all the troops withdrawl from afghan.


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