COMMENTARY
 
President Obama’s Greatest Challenge
Weekly Pulse
January 23-29, 2009
America and the world saw Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream come true on January 20th, when Barack Hussain Obama took oath as 44th, and the first African-American, President of the United States. The unprecedented inauguration ceremony took place amid a sea of people, like the gathering of millions who had flocked Washington, DC in 1963 to listen to American civil rights campaigner’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. While Kenyans and Indonesians have their own special reasons to celebrate the occasion, the rest of the world seems equally excited about Mr Obama’s takeover of the Oval Office for reasons which are quite understandable. Be it the Europeans or the Asians, everybody expects a change of course and direction in America’s conduct in world affairs. So do nations in Central Asia or South Asia, including Pakistan.

After eight years of Bush Administration, the global challenges for America have beyond doubt become more daunting. However, it is amply clear from Barack Obama’s campaign trail and his landslide election victory that the new US President is well aware of these challenges, and possesses the will and the ability to tackle them credibility.

The foremost challenge before President Obama is to restore America’s image in the world that has seen an unprecedented deterioration in recent years, particularly in the Muslim world but also in regions such as Europe where anti-Americanism was never heard of in the past. Mr Obama’s middle name as Hussain, as his father was a Muslim, has an extremely symbolic value for Muslims of the world—which, if combined with a more creative and cooperative US approach towards handling issues of extremism and terrorism, will have lasting effect in reversing the course of al-Qaeda-inspired international terrorist wave.

If Barack Obama’s election is a revolutionary development in American history, his strategy to tackle the unusually grave challenges will have to be revolutionary, as this is what is expected of him at the global stage. Particularly Muslim expectations from President Obama are so great that he will have to be extremely careful in his conduct vis-a-vis the Muslim world. In this respect, every statement that he makes and each poliy his administrtion practices will be cloely watched, unusually applauded or criticised in the bitterest of manner.

Obviously, President Obama’s primary responsibility is to make the lives of Americans, who chose him as their leader, more prosperous and peaceful. And, therefore, his first priority will be to help the US economy recover from current recession by rescuing corporate America with $ 825 billion bailout plan and create 3 million new jobs, as he has already promised.

Beyond economy, however, there are many other global issues that the United States under Obama Administration would have to address urgently and effectively, as they are inter-twined with the prospects of greater progress, peace and security of American people. For instance, there are a host of global ecological and world trade issues whose settlement requires an inclusive, multilateral American approach that was missing during Bush Administration days. The world also expects the United States to be more even-handed in its approach to peace settlement in the Middle East, which, until the last day of the Bush Administration was missing, as Israel continued its killing spree against the Palestinians of Gaza. Then, in its sordid relationship with the Muslim world, the Obama Administration is expected to do more than disband the Guantanamo Bay prison or issue a 16-month deadline for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Iraq.

However, President Obama's quick action as soon as the inaugural ceremonies were over, that of suspending the trials at Guantanamo and then disbanding the prison altogether, are quite enouraging. More of such steps, symbolic as well as substantive--such as the one by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was on phone with Palestinian President Mehmud Abbas, as soon as the Senate confirmed her nomination--will go a long way in reversing the wave of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.

South Asian expectations from the United States under Obama Administration are equally huge. A full-scale war is taking place in Afghanistan, where, despite expansion of the NATO-led security mission, Taliban-led insurgency has gained enormous momentum in the last few years. Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan are facing a similar threat from pro-Taliban militants, who are attacking Pakistani security forces deployed in the region, burning schools even in major towns and cities of the Frontier province, and conducting suicide attacks across the country. Pakistan does have a civilian democratic setup, but continuing security threats, including the threat of war from India and the unstable nature of the country’s politics and economy, are making its domestic standing and clout even more fragile over time.

Instead of amicably resolving the Kashmir dispute with their democratic counterparts in Pakistan, the Indian leaders have once again upped the ante in South Asia by repeatedly accusing Pakistan of sponsoring the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai. India’s bellicose attitude has compelled Pakistan to dispatch some of its troops fighting terrorists in Waziristan and Swat for deployment in defensive positions along the country’s borders with India. The peace process between India and Pakistan is in tatters. The only reason why this peace process began in January 2004 was that the great struggle of the international community against terrorism emanating from Afghanistan or the South-West Asian region could be effectively fought, and that it should not become a victim of the traditional Indo-Pak rivalry in South Asia. Since the events of 9/11 and the consequent US-led war against al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan, India has engaged in a serial pattern of diverting Pakistan’s attention from the War on Terror.

Dealing with India

While it is quite clear as to how the Obama Administration aims to fight the war in Afghanistan and conduct its ties with Pakistan, subjects that I will address later, its approach to India’s conduct vis-à-vis the War on Terror is still unclear. A country whom the Bush Administration showered with a nuclear deal in violation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, India has at least thrice attempted to derail counter-terrorism effort in the region. In the four-year long peace process, it remained reluctant to talk peace in Kashmir with Pakistan. So, an important challenge for the Obama Administration will be to do whatever it can, and do it differently from its predecessor, so that India-Pakistan crisis should never come in the way of the international security project in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions. For the purpose, it may need to re-assess the new ground realities in the region, and, on the basis of such re-assessment, re-shape US policy towards India. Some of these realities are as follows:

Besides itself falling prey to highly rational ambitions of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups in the region, who strategically aim to trigger Indo-Pak hostility to jeopardize international counter-terrorism campaign, New Delhi is making sure that Pakistan should also follow suit. War-mongering by India, war-mongering by Pakistan, resulting in a full-scale war conventional between two nuclear weapon powers, with the most likely outcome of a regional nuclear catastrophe, would most certainly make Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri rejoice, sitting in some cave in the Hindu Kush mountain. For it will be a Mission Accomplished for them: close to a billion Hindus killed, along with hundreds of millions of Muslims, Pakistani or Indian, who are not Muslims in al-Qaeda’s book of ‘Islam.’

Sketching such a fearful hypothetical, futuristic scenario in the subcontinent should not sound irrational because the current situation in the region is extremely volatile. It is not just Pakistan but also the wider world which cannot afford any regional diversion from the War on Terror. Probably that is why civilian and military envoys from the United States, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia have quickly prevailed upon India not to spoil the important cause of counter-terrorism in the region, for which Pakistan’s role is extremely important.

For its part, the democratic leadership of Pakistan has done its best to offer India joint investigation into the terrorist events in Mumbai and beforehand comply with the UN Security Council steps to put a tab on extremist organizations and individuals in the country. During his recent visit to India and Paistan, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband confirmed that there was no evidence suggesting Pakistan's sponsorship of the Mumbai attacks. It is only due to increased international pressure on India to act responsibly amid the War on Terror that New Delhi finally admited that the trial of those arrested in connection with the Mumbai attacks can take place in Pakistan itself.

In the meantime, however, so much damage has already been done by the Indians, by suspending the peace process and forcing Pakistan to withdraw some of its troops battling Taliban in the Frontier. If this is not enough, Indian war-mongering still coninues. Thanks to the international community that it has kept itself engaged with Pakistan throughout this critical period through shuttle diplomacy, including the just-concluded visit of Centcom chief General David Patraeus and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to Islamabad. The aim of these visits may primarily be to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation, but it may also be to convey to New Delhi a strong message as to how much importance the international community attaches with Pakistan as a crucial ally in its war against terrorism in Afghanistan and the region.

As for the Indian leadership, its perception of Pakistan seems to have has failed to proceed beyond the 1990s when the country indeed had a jihadi problem vis-à-vis Indian-administered Kashmir. Years have passed since then, and Pakistan itself has become the victim of these very jihadi forces in the aftermath of 9/11, when it decided to partner with the United States in the War on Terror. Particularly since the 2007 Red Mosque Operation, the local jihadi groups, who have become a Frankenstein Monster for the State of Pakistan, have undertaken several high-profile suicide attacks specifically against its security personnel. The Marriott Attack, for instance, was undertaken by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a local militant sectarian outfit. Likewise, in the perception of these jihadi groups, any Pakistani government, be it military or civilian, who pursues peace with India, especially over Kashmir, is an enemy. Thus, the jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad, when they conduct terrorist operations inside India, what they are basically aiming at, and very rationally so, is that Indo-Pak peace process should not make further headway. For they know very well that if it the peace process moves further, it will only make the wider counter-terrorism campaign in the region more successful. This means that just as al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups aim to destabilize Pakistan, they also aim to re-create a hostile Indo-Pak relationship. And as long as issues of potential hostility between the two countries are aive, Kashmir being the foremost, terrorists will continue to thrive on their basis. For the terroists know that the means they adopt, that of targeting innocent civilians, has an exceptionally huge potential in achieving such strategic goals.

Settling Kashmir Issue

As clear from the above narration, as long as Kashmir remains unresolved, al-Qaeda-inspired, Kashmir-specific, local jihadi organizations in Pakistan will continue to use this dispute to conduct terrorism in Pakistan and India. What we can simply construe from this is that Kashmir, which is an international dispute and for whose settlement the UN Security Council has passed a number of resolutions, has to be resolved urgently if the international community wishes to win the war against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions. Afghanistan and Kashmir are, thus, intrinsically linked to each other. This means that progress in settling Kashmir will lead to success in Afghanistan. In this respect, the good news is that the new US President has already underlined this essential linkage.

On the eve of his elections in November,Mr Obama had said in an interview with MSNBC that the United States should try to help resolve the Kashmir dispute so that Pakistan could focus on hunting down Islamist militants on its north-western frontier — who in turn threaten stability in Afghanistan — rather than worrying about tensions with India on its eastern border.

Mr Obama said, “The most important thing we’re going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan, is actually deal with Pakistan. And we’ve got work with the newly elected government there in a coherent way that says, terrorism is now a threat to you. Extremism is a threat to you. We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”

His views on Kashmir were welcomed by Kashmiris, both inside the Kashmir Valley and among the Kashmiri expatriate community in the United States. “I welcome the growing interest of Barrack Obama in resolving the Kashmir dispute,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the separatist Hurriyat alliance, told the Greater Kashmir newspaper in Srinagar. ”The US and international community is gradually recognizing that resolution of Kashmir dispute was imperative for peace in South Asia.”

Mr Obama had consistently argued during the campaign, as he did in July, that the situation in Afghanistan might be made easier if the United States worked to improve trust between India and Pakistan. Then, in an interview with Time magazine in October, Mr Obama said Kashmir was a place he wanted to “devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach”.

He felt there was “a moment where potentially we could get” the attention of India and Pakistan. Mr Obama said he had spoken with Bill Clinton about this issue over lunch. During the campaign, Obama repeatedly spoke of a more active Kashmir policy. This was the first time he had spoken of an envoy.

The Obama Administration, thus, has all the reasons to sharpen its focus on Kashmir issue in the aftermath of Mumbai terror attacks. A November 28 Economic Times story reported that the attacks were viewed by some in Obama's transition team as “his first major national security challenge that could draw him into the Kashmir dispute sooner than he might like.” The report stated, “Although there is no direct link established between the terrorists operating in Kashmir with those who carried out the Mumbai attacks, a case may be made that eventually all jehadi groups are bound by a common Islamist philosophy. To that extent the Deccan Mujahedeen, a likely offshoot of the more organized Indian Mujahedeen, may well share the broader vision of those operating in Kashmir.”

Since President Obama is committed to making Afghanistan and Pakistan his administration's foreign policy as well national security priority, it is only logical that he would have to pay particular attention to Kashmir.

Perhaps the clearest indication of a more pro-active Kashmir approach under Obama has come from Bruce Reidel, who was an advisor of US President Bill Clinton on South Asia and the Middle East and has been appointed by President Obama his Pakistan adviser. In a September interview with the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, Reidel was quoted as saying: “There's another place where I feel creative American diplomacy could be helpful. We ought to try to encourage a long-term settlement between India and Pakistan of the Kashmir dispute, based again on the principle that the existing Line of Control ought to become an international border with some special status reserved for Kashmiris.”

“We can't expect Pakistan to behave like a normal state, unless it has normal borders. And we can't expect Pakistan to behave the way we would like it to while it's obsessed and fixated on its neighbor and the problem in Kashmir. The problem in Kashmir has been in the doldrums for the past several years. It is now starting to boil really quickly, and when Kashmir boils, the result is Indian-Pakistani tensions that can produce war. We've seen that over and over again,” he said.

Britiish Foreign Secretary Miliband echoed President Obama's remarks on Kashmir when he wrote an article on the eve o of his recent visit to New Delhi and Islamabad that "solving the Kashmir issue would deny LeT its 'call to arms' and free Pakistan to fight al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in its tribal areas. "Although I understand the current difficulties, resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders," he said.

Miliband's comments drew an angry response from his Indian hosts. A spokesman for Indian Ministry of External Affairs said: "We do not need his unsolicited advice on internal matters of India like Jammu and Kashmir." It is for sure that the Obama Administration will receive a similar disappointing response from New Delhi whenever it makes a move to resolve the Kashmir dispute, especially by appoining a special US envoy for Kashmir.

New Delhi must understand that its peace process with Islamabad is in the benefit of both as well as the entire region. How can India dream of a world power without resolving one of the world's oldest disputes--namely Kashmir--with Pakistan? Afghanistan and Pakistan

As clear from the above narration, two important regional challenges for the Obama Administration require a major shift in US policy aimed at a) Forcing India to revise its outlook on the issue of terrorism by considering the possibility that overtime terrorism has become as much a threat to it as to its arch regional rival and combat it in cooperation jointly with Pakistan, and b) intervening to resolve Kashmir issue, whose non-resolution provides an important context and reason for al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups.

However, this does not mean that the challenges posed by the worsening security quagmire in Pakistan, especially in its tribal belt, and the intensification of Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan are less grave. 2008 proved to be deadlier year for the NATO mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s security forces in the tribal areas. In fact, each year since 2006, the security situation in both cases has worsened. The civilian regime in Pakistan has intensified military campaign in Waziristan and Swat regions. The United States has conducted several drone attacks. In Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions, more NATO troops are engaged in combat with Taliban and their militant affiliates. Yet the situation on the ground both in Pakistani and Afghan regions infested with Taliban violence has not improved significantly.

This obviously requires further intensification in the military campaign in both cases. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, throughout his election campaign, Obama had identified Afghanistan as the central front in the War on Terror. The new US President had then basically echoed the demands of commanders on the ground for more troops, and the Pentagon has tentatively agreed to send as many as 30,000 more US soldiers to the country. That will nearly double the number of American troops on the ground, and bring the total number of foreign soldiers, including those of NATO nations, to about 92,000.

As far as Obama’s much-quoted remarks during the campaign about bombing terrorist targets in Pakistan were concerned, they were, in his own words, “misunderstood.” In a July CBS television interview from Kabul, Obama had retracted those remarks by saying that instead of sending US troops into Pakistan’s tribal regions, he would work with the Pakistani government to root out terrorist camps from the area. “What I’ve said is that if we had actionable intelligence against high-value Al Qaeda targets, and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those targets, that we should.”

As for the “troops’ surge” in Afghanistan, the Bush administration had already sent additional 3,000 troops to Afghanistan. Along with pursuing this option, the Obama Administration would expect Pakistan to correspondingly intensify its military campaign in the tribal regions to prevent terrorist infiltration into Afghanistan. As I have stated above, the new civilian rulers of Pakistan are already engaged in such a campaign. The Cent-com is working out a comprehensive plan to train regional forces, including Pakistan’s, for counter-insurgency operations. All of this means that at least in the initial months, or perhaps for a year, of the Obama Administration, we can expect a full-scale war effort against respective Taliban and pro-Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But, simultaneously, we must also understand that the reason the option of “troops surge” or intensified military campaign will be exercised is because the same actually worked in Iraq. It reversed the wave of militancy by al-Qaeda terrorists and former Baathist insurgents in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq, paving the way for the possibility of the withdrawal of US troops from the country. And one of the reasons why the surge of troops worked in the Iraqi case is because the Iraqi government and the coalition leadership succeeded in forcing or persuading the insurgent forces through intense military pressure to reconcile with the new political situation in Iraq.

Given that, I strongly believe that the rationale behind initially intensifying the military effort in Afghanistan through an enhanced NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan, and expecting Pakistan to do so, is to thrash the Taliban-led insurgent-terrorist forces enough so that they are forced to make peace with the new reality of Afghanistan. Interestingly, behind-the-scenes or at least through official statements, this new longer-term approach of the Obama Administration began even before it came to office.

In late September, we saw Saudi Arabia attempting to mediate peace between Afghan government representatives and moderate envoys of the forces of Afghan insurgency. Following that, there is hardly any UN, US, British, ISAF or NATO official left who has not talked about the possibility of pursuing dialogue with the Taliban. Although there are a lot of big “ifs” attached to the pursuit of such an option, but the argument of those advancing this thesis, including US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who continues with the Obama Administration, is that, at the end of the day, it is through dialogue that the problem of Afghanistan will see a lasting solution.

This brings me back to the point I made during much of this article before: that India constitutes an important problem in this region. Suppose after much beating and thrashing, the Taliban in Afghanistan and their allies there and in Pakistan’s tribal regions finally come around the table and are ready to negotiate peace on the terms of the NATO and Afghan regime in Afghanistan and the government of Pakistan, respectively. Will the Indians be happy about a possibility like this? Most certainly not! For India, despite not sharing borders with Afghanistan, wants Kabul to be its proxy so that Pakistan is sand-witched between a hostile Afghanistan and a hostile India. Such regressive and sadistic Indian outlook is an outcome of India’s historically domineering conduct in South Asia.

On the other hand, the rulers of Pakistan will be happy about the pursuit of reconciliation in Afghanistan and the country’s tribal regions, where Islamabad is so deeply bogged down in a security quagmire. Even if Pakistan has to intensify its own military campaign in Waziristan and Swat momentarily for the eventual realization of such a strategically important goal, it will not hesitate. One of the reasons why the Musharraf regime, because of its military roots, was going only to an extent in using force against the Taliban was because of its uncertainty about a long-term backlash from Taliban and pro-Taliban forces in the country in case NATO or the United States eventually decide to withdraw from Afghanistan. Under President Obama, such possibility, however irrationally rooted it was before, can be ruled out.

The success or failure of the Obama Administration will be decided partly whether it turns around the US economy and partly whether it wins the war in Afghanistan, which, unlike Iraq, was and is the cause of international terrorism. The latter success is more important for restoring international standing of the United States as a global power. However, given the Democratic Party’s neo-liberal creed, the broader process towards restoration of this power and image will be through winning the hearts and minds of the people, including those currently perceived to be enemies, pursuing reconciliation with them as an ultimate goal, boosting democratization and development in allies like Pakistan. As Hillary Clinton, the new US Secretary of State, said recently, it is not through hard military power but “smart power” that the United States will achieve its global objectives.

Access column at weeklypulse.org