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Obama threatens to make Pakistan policy

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13 November 2008 07:07

Guest blogger: David Knoll researches US foreign policy in Washington, DC, and served as research assistant for former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s last book, ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West.’

During the US presidential campaign Barack Obama pledged to shift the foreign policy focus in Washington away from Iraq and toward the good fight in Afghanistan. Dealing with the safe haven that militants enjoy across the border in Pakistan is the key to achieving any sort of realistic stability in Afghanistan, yet even a fairly detailed search of Obama’s website does not reveal his Pakistan policy. A run through of his thoughts on Pakistan is therefore helpful.

The Bush Administration has a quiet understanding with the Pakistani Government to carry out US airstrikes on high value targets in Pakistani territory. The US has conducted 18 such strikes in Pakistan since August. An Obama Administration would probably continue the airstrike-only policy for the immediate future. Ground incursions by US troops seem to be off the table for now.

So how will the Obama Administration’s Pakistan policy differ?

For many, Obama’s position on Pakistan can be summed up by his [in]famous campaign statement: 'If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.'  Much has been made about this statement, but one campaign sound byte does not translate into a comprehensive policy and likely any administration would follow this policy, annunciated or not.

More interesting is Obama’s position on the Kashmir dispute. He has argued that putting US efforts toward a solution to the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir could relieve enough pressure on Pakistan’s security forces that Islamabad would be able to focus more exclusively on resolving the militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. This strategy is premised on the assumption that Pakistan has not been successful against the militants in its border areas due to a lack of resources, not a lack of will. 

Obama is said to be considering former president Bill Clinton for the role of special envoy to the dispute; certainly an affirmation of his belief in the importance of the mission. Others might argue that he is merely trying to exile his favorite ex-president to the other side of the world, but that’s beside the point.

Obama has also pledged to aggressively increase non-military aid to Pakistan and has threatened to make military aid conditional. It appears that Obama’s overall strategy is to give Pakistan the resources it needs to properly deal with the militancy threatening US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, while threatening to cut off the military aid that Pakistan’s rulers lust after if they do not show the willingness to carry out the task of disabling the militants in their territory. 

The dangers of this strategy are two fold: first, without an effective oversight method, providing additional non-military aid to Pakistan is rather ineffective. Second, cutting off military aid to Pakistan is always dangerous, to which recent history can attest — the warlordism and chaos in Afghanistan that followed the Afghan-Soviet War in the 1990s can be at least be partially attributed to the US withdrawal from the region. 

Current US policy allows militants effective sanctuary in Pakistan from which they can attack US and NATO forces all too easily. This is an untenable situation and makes stalemate in Afghanistan more likely than victory. Obama’s more focused look at the region is already a welcome sight; one that needs to be followed up by effective engagement with the conflict. The situation is going to take some serious creative thinking and focus, so it bodes well that, in the days leading up to his election, Obama was seen reading Ghost Wars, Steve Coll’s seminal volume on the US role in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Afghan-Soviet War.

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