George W Bush, Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf have been three principal characters in the US-led War on Terror. However, each one of them is or seems to be in the last leg of their presidential careers. In November 2008, Mr. Bush will be completing his second and final presidential term and will formally leave office in January 2009. Karzai’s five-year presidential tenure will end in September 2009. Even though Mr. Musharraf has been re-elected as Pakistan’s President until 2013, it is uncertain that he can stay in office that long.
One of the reasons Karzai and Musharaf have been able to govern their respective countries is the consistent support they received from President Bush. Given that, even if Karzai was able to win the next Afghan presidential elections and Musharraf was able to overcome legal and political obstacles concerning his second presidential tenure, they may not have the same level of support from the new American leadership as they enjoyed during the Bush administration.
Even otherwise, the domestic support base for both Karzai and Musharraf has already been significantly eroded, and it will erode more in the following months. Thus, by the time the new US President takes office, the two leaders’ respective political position would have weakened to such an extent that the next American administration would think twice before backing them as enthusiastically as the Bush administration did.
As for Karzai, Kabul has been his powerbase all along. Beyond the Afghan capital, he has not been able to do much. Just a few weeks ago, there was a second attempt to assassinate him. During his six-and-a-half year long rule, first as an interim president until September 2004 and then as an elected president since then, Karzai has been unable to reverse the course of Taliban-led insurgency, with all of the international security, political and developmental assistance at his disposal.
Yet Karzai still retains a very favourable image for his Afghan leadership before the international community, including the United States and European Union. Moreover, Afghanistan very much remains a project of the international community, in which the UN Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and a host of other international stake-holders are heavily involved.
Since Afghanistan remains a country at war, even if its leadership’s domestic political credibility further erodes, this may not be a potent factor in persuading the international community, especially the US-led West, to put another Afghan Pashtun leader in Karzai’s place. There is also no other alternative Afghan leader whose past has been as non-controversial as Karzai’s, or who is charismatic enough to win as much international goodwill as Karzai has.
Thus, comparatively speaking, Karzai has chances of staying in power even beyond September 2009. Still, as stated before, the question is whether he will be able to get the same support from the next American leader as he did during the Bush administration. If the answer is no, which looks probable, and if Karzai has not been able to make a difference in the ground reality of Afghanistan despite full American backing, then his re-election as President for another term is immaterial.
We must, therefore, understand the future of the Afghan project and its crucial relationship to the US-led War on Terror from a perspective in which factors other than Karzai may matter more in the post-Bush phase of Afghan-US relationship.
US Election Outcome
In November, the American people will elect their new President, either Democratic candidate Barak Obama or Republican John McCain. For now, Obama has more chances of winning the US Presidency. American preferences in the War on Terror are likely to change under a Democratic Administration. The assertion of Democratic Party in US domestic politics is a direct outcome of the Bush Administration’s policies in the War on Terror, especially the US military involvement in Iraq.
It is not that Obama does not attach any significance with the War on Terror; he does, but he has taken an issue with the manner in which it has been fought. Even otherwise, the Democrats are less prone to be militaristic in world affairs. They prefer diplomatic tools over war, such as sanctions and negotiations, to resolve international issues. The use of force, in the eyes of the Democrats, should be the last resort when all other instruments of policy have been tried.
During the Balkan crises of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, for instance, the Clinton administration had fully exhausted all other avenues before undertaking the military option. The first crisis again was resolved through the Dayton Peace Accords, even though the United States deployed some 20,000 US soldiers to keep the precarious peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Kosovo’s case, force was employed only when it was clear that the Serbs were interested in nothing but another ethnic cleansing of the Balkan Muslims. Likewise, in the case of Iraq, the Clinton administration imposed only international sanctions against the country under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussain, and undertook limited air-strikes beyond the northern and southern no-fly zones only in response to hostile acts on the part of the latter.
Even if Republicans were able to exploit the Democratic divide on race and gender issues, as visible from the party’s recently-concluded primaries in favor of Obama, and elect McCain as President, a transformation in America’s counter-terrorism preferences will still be in the offing. Neo-conservatism of the Bush era, during which the post-9/11 US-led counter-terrorism effort remained premised on the exercise of military means alone, with its focus shifting heavily from Afghanistan to Iraq since spring 2003, will most likely give way to a new phase in the War on Terror.
During this new phase, not only the emphasis of the US-led counter-terrorism strategy may place more emphasis on finding a comprehensive solution to the problem of international terrorism, inclusive of both military and non-military means but with a clear tilt towards the latter, its regional focus may also gradually shift away from Iraq and towards Afghanistan, which has been a hub of al-Qaeda led international terrorist predating 9/11.
For six years, Pervez Musharraf has been the principal character in the US-led War on Terror being waged in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 terrorist events. However, an important reason why Musharraf has been able to sustain a leadership role in this war, acknowledged duly by the world community, is the consistent support he received from the Bush Administration, even amid drastic decline in his domestic public support. President Bush is already in the last leg of his second presidential tenure.. It is difficult to imagine either Obama or McCain extending the same level of support to Musharraf as was available to him from President Bush.
The manner in which the political events in Pakistan since the election of March 18 have unfolded, including the rapid assertion of civilian democratic forces and the growing momentum towards resolution of the judicial issue, have already considerably weakened Musharraf’s domestic political clout. In the light of Musharraf’s fast dwindling external and internal support base, it is about time we in Pakistan and the world at large start preparing for a period in which religiously-grounded terrorism remains a principal international threat, with Pakistan as one of its main breeding grounds, but the strategy to manage this threat goes beyond the legacy of Bush and Musharraf.
As stated before, the US strategy in the War on Terror is expected to change under the new American administration, especially if it came under the Democratic Party leadership, in favour of a comprehensive politico-economic strategy. In all likelihood, therefore, Pakistan’s role as a frontline US ally in the War on Terror will continue in the foreseeable future. Recent terrorist acts in the country make it amply clear that the terrorist threat from religious extremists remains a principal domestic security challenge for Pakistan even under a democratic dispensation which has preferred to negotiate peace with religious militants, however with some conditions. Since domestic terrorist events such as the above have regional and international implications, the international community, particularly the United States and its Western allies, will continue to expect from the country’s leadership to proactively combat terrorism. In popular perceptions, Musharraf has merely been a Bush’s protégé, who extended the Bush Administration’s Neo-Conservative agenda and, in return, received unbridled support from it.
Pakistan’s counter-terrorism strategy beyond Musharraf, especially considering the recent civilian democratic in the country’s politics, should, therefore, include a gamut of steps that serve America’s interests as much as they serve Pakistan’s. In fact, the new coalition government has already undertaken a shift in the country’s counter-terrorism strategy, by offering a conditional peace to pro-Taliban militants in Waziristan and signing a peace accord with the militants in Swat. Bush administration’s reservations on the issue are understandable, but meaningless in the wake of the impending change in US government and leadership.
In retrospect, events as they unfold in the months ahead may also make Musharraf, the third principal character of the War on Terror with Bush and Karzai being the other two, irrelevant. It is, therefore, about time we started thinking about a national, regional and international environment where we are still faced with as much a danger as we have in recent years from religiously motivated extremists and terrorists, but where the world’s three principal counter-terrorism leaders have either disappeared from the scene altogether or are there but no more as relevant to the scene as they were before.
In the era of these three leaders, the primacy of force characterized the War on Terror. Beyond them, how this war will be fought, which policy instruments and what combination of these instruments it will involve are some, if not all, of the questions that need to be addressed now.
Access column at weeklypulse.org