Senior political analyst at The News, Mushahid Hussain, writes today that Obama’s plan presents an opening to Pakistan, and urges readers not to be misled by conspiracy theories, but instead to grasp the opportunity presented to put our nation back on the right track.
Caught between competing constituencies, President Barack Obama has chosen the best of a bad bargain. Having inherited a weak hand, he is treading the middle ground between open-ended escalation and an immediate exit.
The right — Republicans, conservatives, the military establishment — urged a heavy-hitting, long-staying strategy woven around a massive use of force. Conversely, Obama’s core constituency — Democrats, liberals, minorities — sought a total change of course from the Bush years that saw the United States isolated and bogged down in an unwinnable war without end.
Using the ‘patriotic’ platform of the US military academy, President Obama played his last card on Afghanistan — conceding to a surge but coupling it with an 18-month time frame of withdrawal, coinciding with the beginning of his re-election campaign in the summer of 2011. He is smart enough to know that 30,000 troops will not reverse the wrongs of eight years of occupation by the 100,000 already present there, but he does not want to come across as a ‘weak’ president, especially when the right is baying for his blood.
Obama has lowered his sights and limited his goals. No longer a quest for military victory, nation-building for Afghanistan has been discarded and the desire of a long-drawn military occupation has given way to a hard-nosed reality check. A majority of Americans now feel the Afghan adventure is an exercise in futility, the US economy has put finite limits to spending on foreign wars and the military situation in Afghanistan is more favourable to the Taliban rather than the 43-nation ‘coalition of the willing’ that has put in boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
Shorn of the verbiage, Obama’s fundamental goal is to put enough military pressure on the Taliban to enable them to come to the conference table for a negotiated, face-saving ‘dignified’ US military exit from Afghanistan.
What’s new in the Obama strategy? He has taken the first tentative steps to wind down the post-9/11 era. His timeline puts pressure on his generals to deliver while concurrently, offering some solace to his anti-war constituency that he is keen to extricate the US from the Afghan quagmire.
Obama is also the first to draw a linkage between the war and the economic crisis. Liberal economists like the Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz had already made this connection, talking about the ‘trillion-dollar wars’ long before the economic collapse last year.
The focus has shifted to Pakistan, now publicly acknowledged as the pivotal player which holds the key to durable peace, stability and security in this troubled region. Since 1979, the region has been wracked by internecine conflicts through civil wars, invasions and occupations that spawned a nexus between militarism and militancy.
In the process, an American narrative was born post-9/11, part mythology and part fact. This narrative, which mirrors similar conspiracy-theories in the minds of Muslims, essentially sought a scapegoat for failure and a rationale for continued wars in the region. Three ingredients of this American narrative are vital, starting with the myth about Al Qaeda’s capacity. The 19 hijackers who committed the crimes of 9/11 were neither Afghans nor Pakistanis — they were all Europe-based, US-trained Arab Muslims. The theory of ‘Al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan’ was largely promoted to deflect attention from the American failure to nab Osama bin Laden and Dr Ayman Zawahiri. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s report of November 30, 2009, about their escape from Tora Bora in December 2001 makes it evident that it was facilitated courtesy American incompetence (the task to capture Osama was outsourced to greedy Afghan warlords) and bad planning (lack of military manpower on the ground). And even the best intelligence estimates put Al Qaeda’s hard-core at 100 in Afghanistan and 200 or so in Pakistan, essentially a hotch-potch of Chechens, Uzbeks, Arabs and Uighurs with differing, local agendas.
Al Qaeda’s world view is certainly not shaped by Afghanistan or Pakistan. Rather Palestine is their primary grievance, a fact conveniently overlooked by most western policy makers and commentators. Are the 130,000 troops from the world’s most powerful armies the answer to ‘dismantle, disrupt and defeat’ these 300 terrorists holed up in the caves of the Hindukush?
The second part of the post-9/11 American narrative saw the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as ‘nation-building’ exercises meant to bring western-style democracy to these Muslim lands via secular constitutions, women’s rights and ‘modern values’. Well, that mythology now lies thankfully buried too. Iraq was about oil, encouraged in a large measure by the pro-Israeli neo-cons, while Afghanistan, an easy target, was to assuage the American anger and humiliation over the brazen audacity of the 9/11 attacks. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are worse off than before, as the 150,000 dead civilians can testify.
After eight years of occupation, according to the eminent US author Phyllis Bennis, Afghanistan ranks second to last in the United Nations Human Development Index, UNICEF places Afghanistan as one of the three worst places for a child to be born and the country has the second highest level of maternal mortality in the world. And to think that in 2010, the United States will be dumping $100 billion just for the war in Afghanistan, which comes to roughly $2 billion every week or $11 million every hour!
Finally, the American narrative mobilises its public opinion by conjuring up unholy fears of ‘enemy designs’. It’s the ultimate doomsday scenario: Al Qaeda captures the Islamic bomb. And since Pakistan is the world’s sole Muslim nuclear power, the cocktail couldn’t be more volatile. If the US really knew where Al Qaeda leaders were, they would have taken them out by now without the formality of asking Pakistan to ‘do more’.
Such mythology spreads to other would-have-been Muslim nuclear powers as well. The US went to war on the plea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (an outright lie), while Israel and its friends in Washington are pushing for a new war against Iran on the same ground although the US National Intelligence Estimate (a joint effort of 16 American intelligence outfits) proclaimed in 2007 that Iran had ceased its quest for the bomb way back in 2003. No new evidence to the contrary has as yet been unearthed.
Notwithstanding such self-serving conspiracy theories, a positive aspect of the Obama strategy is the president’s approach towards Pakistan — a welcome tone of respect for the country and a genuine expression of empathy for Pakistanis.
Pakistan finds itself in a fortuitous position thanks to a confluence of geopolitics and American strategic necessity. And unlike Bush, Obama has relegated India to the second tier after China and Pakistan. In fact, in again underlining his belief in a nuclear-free world, there may be a hint in Obama’s speech of a dilution of his commitment to pushing the Indo-US nuclear deal through.
Over the years, Pakistani leaders have developed a bad habit of whining all the time, dependent on dole and overly suspicious of every gesture, even one which may be friendly. Obama says he wants to help Pakistan. Well, let’s take him at face value; his extended hand should be grasped, not spurned.
Ultimately, we alone will have to clean up our own mess. The opening offered by Obama provides another opportunity to do so.