Barack Obama is all set for his second term in office. This continuity offers a bleak perspective for millions of Pakistanis desperately hoping for some change in US counter-terrorism policy. It could have been worse had Obama lost to Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, even though many Pakistanis were rooting for Romney. Obviously uninformed, and desperate for change, they were probably hoping that a change of face in White House may usher in for them a less hostile policy — lesser drone strikes, less “reactive” militancy, some hope for a return to normality before the US-led war on terror.
Thankfully, Romney did not win for one can only imagine a far worse scenario than the one at present under a Republican president, who would have likely gone for “boots on the ground” lest the Generals in the GHQ launch military offensives at the drop of a hat and destroy all the “safe havens” in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan — that are incidentally deemed the major reason why the Afghan insurgency has not been defeated so far! Unfortunately, this myopic view, despite the constant reality checks, is the reason behind the propensity to blame everything across the border.
Obama’s adamant following of the George W. Bush administration’s Afghan policy and expansion of the counter-terrorism doctrine to include ‘Pak’ in the ‘Af’ ambit had dashed expectations when he initially took over the Oval Office. In fact, a more belligerent stance, and stepping up of the Predator strikes, has been the hallmark of a president whose air of empathy and promise to redress the wrongs committed by his predecessor had millions invest so much faith in him.
Disappointments, however, have not been one sided and neither have the consequent frustrations been so aptly matched, as at present when the two “critical allies” enter a decisive phase, locked in an unwilling embrace over a yawning trust deficit. This might well be the undoing of this alliance unless some critical steps are taken.
A remedial measure requires the need for close introspection in both Washington and Islamabad. Questions need to be asked by each, of their individual failings, their policies, of how they envision the future that demands a shift in their strategic doctrine especially as the geopolitical dynamics shape new realities. This will place an onus on each stakeholder to decide on tactics in fighting a war that has of late begun to appear shrouded in a fog of uncertainty. At this juncture, the bigger question is how the US, under Obama’s leadership, and Pakistan are able to repair a damaged relationship.
Would the launch of a large-scale military offensive by the Pakistan Army against Mullah Omar-allied insurgents, the Haqqanis, allegedly in North Waziristan, dispel this air of mistrust between the two? If the so-called safe havens, the lynch pins of the Afghan insurgency, are pivotal to crushing the insurgents whose nationalist roots are overlooked just because their idea of governance is primitive and because of their inadvertent forced collusion with Al Qaida post 9/11, then why does not the Coalition coordinate collective operations on both sides of the border. Earlier, ISAF-coordinated troop movements in Afghanistan, along the border, had helped the Pakistan military’s South Waziristan operation.
The tactical vulnerability of the border itself, a porous, meandering,unmarked line passing through one of the world’s most difficult terrains, requires a lot of grit for implementing a doable plan of action. It may be worthwhile to imagine a reverse scenario where there is more vigilante monitoring for cross-border movement on the Afghan side. That would require stationing of troops and formation of more checkposts. An idea proposed earlier during Pervez Musharraf’s time was met with stony resistance from Kabul regarding the electric fencing of the Durand Line to deter cross-border militancy. But given the nature and extent of the insurgent movement, it may be time to look into adding layers of deterrents and blocking all channels that are believed to be aiding insurgency.
It is unlikely that Obama will end the drone strikes. In fact, these will possibly be stepped up, given how these have morphed as a successful counter-terrorism tool.
While Islamabad’s call to end the drone strikes seems ludicrous after it has clearly allowed the US to pursue this course, there has been a creeping urgency in the rhetoric to end the strikes. Pakistan needs to decide whether conducting such strikes at the risk of killing civilians ‑ if the drones were provided to its forces after all ‑ is a feasible proposition? Some drone strikes have also netted in some key anti-state militants. However, the success rate of killing militants/insurgents cannot be compared to the human loss that is in thousands, one dismissed as mere numbers in the total sum of the collateral damage. This inhumane aspect of modern warfare does call into question the drawing of certain boundaries whose ethical values must neither be blurred nor ignored.
President Obama’s future feats in this war are not likely to surpass the success of eliminating Osama Bin Laden, but it may be time for him to look beyond the obvious objectives stamped ‘Highly Classified’. Would breaking the back of the Taliban-led insurgency by killing the top leadership get him or future US leaders a world where there was no challenge or threat to their ideals and interests? What about the proliferation of Islamists and Al Qaida offshoots in Africa and Yemen? Would the US unleash drones in each and every country to counter this? More importantly, where does it stop?
Pakistan is not exempt from blame and introspection is important for the establishment to question the pursuit of a flawed policy that has landed it in this deadlock today. The positive thing is that the brand of extremist ideology has been rejected by the people. It is also true that US policy has been counter-productive and in fact has spawned more militancy and more hatred against the very ally whose development aid is viewed as blood money.
It is high time the policy makers in Washington understand that the decades-old collective ill will, not just in South West Asia, but more so in the Middle East, is because of the dogged pursuit of a flawed policy that is hypocritical, self serving and based on the logic of expediency.
The question is if Obama has the mettle and the will to change the course of the tide.