Four more years — confrontation or conciliation?

It is in Pakistan’s interest to identify the Obama Administration’s likely policy goals in this part of the world.


Tariq Fatemi November 13, 2012

President Barack Obama’s re-election has ended the uncertainty and drift that inevitably envelopes the US ahead of presidential elections.

As happens in most mature and stable polities with strong institutions, elections are not harbingers of major changes in foreign policy. Nevertheless, it is in Pakistan’s interest to identify the Obama Administration’s likely policy goals in this part of the world and more particularly, where will Pakistan fit in President Obama’s scheme of things?

Some in the US and in Pakistan as well may claim that there is little in common between the two countries and, therefore, confrontation is inevitable. This would, however, be an unfortunate conclusion, particularly with the huge challenges confronting the region, most of which incidentally are in and around Pakistan and none amenable to quick solutions. Failure would not only impact the region, but also leave scars on President Obama’s legacy.

The most urgent is the issue of the 2014 deadline for the departure of US combat troops from Afghanistan. A hasty withdrawal without prior understanding among the parties, within and around Afghanistan, could recreate the mid-1990s scenario. Leaving a residual force of a few thousand would make them easy prey to attacks by extremists. The only option is to engage with the Taliban with seriousness and sincerity that have not been evidenced so far. The US-Taliban dialogue has, in fact, been pursued in fits and starts and without the encouragement and support from the White House that it deserves. Moreover, steps such as branding the Haqqani network as a “terrorist organisation” has not helped, particularly with some Taliban leaders confident that they can “out-wait” the foreign troops.

Pakistan remains a key player in the unfolding events, which makes understanding and cooperation with the US essential, not only for their bilateral ties, but vital for future peace in Afghanistan as well. Given the residue of suspicion and mistrust from the unfortunate slide of the past two years, it will not be easy, especially as Islamabad gears itself for general elections that could be deeply contentious, with some political parties intensifying the anti-US rhetoric.

It is, however, a welcome development that the two have resumed their dialogue on what would need to be done to ensure that Afghanistan does not descend into a state of civil war post-2014. But for even a modicum of understanding to emerge, the US will have to demonstrate greater imagination and initiative to give substance to their ties than has been witnessed so far. Pakistan, too, has to recognise that 2014 will leave none untouched. A ‘helpful’ role in promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan would ensure huge dividends, not only at home but in relations with the US, in addition to opening up new opportunities in Central Asia and Russia.

Iran remains an explosive issue, with Israel and its ‘friends’ in the US watching hawk-like for evidence of any weakening on President Obama’s part. Benjamin Netanyahu may have been chagrined by his ‘favourite’s’ defeat, but this will not have weakened his resolve to pile on pressure on President Obama should he detect any vacillation on Iran. Nevertheless, the US must explore the option of direct negotiations with Iran, whose leadership may engage in rhetoric, but remains committed to realism.

Syria is caught in a vicious civil war that has torn the fabric of the state. It is tempting to see it as another opportunity to promote the West’s much-vaunted regime change philosophy. But President Obama has so far been wary of deeper engagement, preferring once again, to “lead from behind” and it would be advisable to keep to this track.

In his acceptance speech, President Obama urged the Americans to “move with confidence beyond this time of war”. Well, he has the unique opportunity of restoring the US to a position of moral leadership rather than one based on military strength. He could actually become a transformational president in foreign policy, provided he can demonstrate conviction in what he preaches.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2012.

COMMENTS (16)

Jat | 9 years ago | Reply

@gp65: Thank you

G. Din | 9 years ago | Reply

@C. Nandkishore: "... makes it venerable to drone attacks ..." "...Unlike 1990s Pakistan is economically much more venerable today." Did you mean vulnerable?

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