Monday, February 09, 2009

Pakistan identified as biggest foreign policy test.

It says a lot about the good sense of the Obama administration that he can admit that Pakistan is the situation that "scares" him. I never felt that Bush ever understood the situation in Pakistan, as every pressure he placed on Musharraf simply made the situation worse. It's all well and good to demand that Pakistan must help in the war on terror but, anyone who believes in democracy as Bush claimed to do, must understand that in a democracy it is very hard to work against the will of the people, and many of the people did not agree with what Bush was asking Pakistan to do.

The situation is much more nuanced and difficult than Bush ever acknowledged.

The country is threatened by a growing Islamist insurgency, economic collapse and a crisis of governance as it struggles to establish democratic rule. The Obama administration believes Pakistan is key to its objectives of pacifying Afghanistan and going after al-Qaida and has appointed a pugnacious diplomatic troubleshooter, Richard Holbrooke, as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We often call this situation Afpak," said Holbrooke at a conference in Munich yesterday, before flying to Islamabad. "There will be more focus on Pakistan," he said. "A new and fragile democracy has emerged ... but the situation in Pakistan requires attention and sympathy."

I am delighted to hear Holbrooke talk of sympathy, for that is exactly what is needed here. The last thing we need is for a continuation of the Bush policy of simply laying down the law and demanding that the Pakistan government comply with American wishes.

That policy will result in possible civil unrest in Pakistan, which is the last thing we need in a country with nuclear weapons.

Pakistan is al-Qaida's headquarters, while its tribal territory, which runs along the Afghan border, is used by the Taliban to launch attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Some Pakistani extremists who previously focused on Afghanistan, have now turned inwards, spawning a vicious Pakistani Taliban movement which challenges the writ of the state. Obama warned in a television interview this month that the spillover of the war in Afghanistan risks "destabilising neighbouring Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons".

The security situation in Pakistan seems to deteriorate daily. Last week's headlines, for instance, included: a bombing of a religious procession in the central town of Dera Ghazi Khan, which claimed at least 27 lives; government helicopter gunship attacks that killed 52 militants in the Khyber area of the tribal region; the kidnapping of a senior UN official by gunmen; and the beheading of a Polish engineer who was abducted five months ago. A videotape of the execution was released last night by his captors.

I have no idea what policies Obama is going to pursue in Pakistan but I am delighted that he appears, at least, to acknowledge that there is no political consensus in Pakistan when it comes to what to do about al Qaeda. Indeed, there is some question over whether the civilian government are actually in charge of their own army.

"The civilian leadership is weak and fearful of the inevitable in Pakistan, that it oversteps the mark and runs the risk of being removed [by the army]," said Rashed Rahman, a political analyst based in Lahore. "It's a non-functional government."

The army has repeatedly shown that it will not bow to civilians on national security, refusing a government order last year, for instance, to place the top spy agency, the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, under government control.

Bush acted as if Musharraf was duty bound to accept his goals as his own. That was a suicidal policy which ignored political reality.

Obama, at least, is willing to accept that political reality and shape policy which is sympathetic to it. We all know what we would like them to do, but saying it doesn't make it doable.

Obama, unlike Bush, appears to have grasped that.

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