Obama Softens on Pakistan. A Pakistani journalist asks why?

Barack Obama’s trip to active combat theaters around the world has raised an important question: Is Obama having after-thoughts about his hard line policy for dealing with Pakistan, or has he changed his views to accommodate the on-the-ground realities he found on a maiden visit to one of toughest terrains of the world?

On his visit to Afghanistan, Obama sounded a more conciliatory tone towards Pakistan in contrast to his previous advocacy for unilateral military strikes on actionable intelligence inside Pakistani territory. Instead of encouraging US incursions inside Pakistan’s restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Obama says he would like to work with the government in Islamabad, “to root out terrorist camps on the Pakistani territory.”

In an interview on the CBS Evening News, Obama refused to advocate unilateral military action on targets inside Pakistani territory. Instead, he recognized the need for greater cooperation with Pakistan. He admitted that the US could not solve the security problems in Afghanistan without engaging Pakistan. Obama said the US should use its military and economic assistance to persuade Pakistan to act against the insurgents. He did not repeat his earlier talk of making military aid to Islamabad conditional on Pakistan’s performance in the “war on terror.” He also did not spell out the tools he would use as Commander-in-Chief to “press Pakistan hard” to fall in line with US policy and go after terrorist targets inside its territory.

Obama’s latest comments are in striking contrast to his earlier statements that were heavily laced with unilateralist overtures. Whatever the reasons may be for his redefined foreign policy outlook for Pakistan, his critics may use it as his latest flip-flop. His advocacy of a troop-surge in Afghanistan is in line with the popular thinking of US commanders. Obama’s troop-surge advocacy is strikingly similar to the one his Republican challenger John McCain has consistently advocated for Iraq. The difference between the two candidates portrayal is unique; one is highlighting the tail, and the other, the head of the same issue.

Obama is going after the justification for the Iraq War and blaming it for the worsening situation in Afghanistan. His prescription for victory in Afghanistan is a swift withdrawal from Iraq in 16 months and a military surge in Afghanistan. McCain, without addressing the history of the Iraq war, is looking forward to a victorious pullout and to the use of Iraqi experience to realize victory in Afghanistan. Both candidates, however, do have a point of convergence, which is an increased troop presence in Afghanistan.

Less than a year ago, Obama made headlines for taking a tougher line on Pakistan than the Bush administration, and criticizing the administration’s unconditional military aid to Islamabad. Obama’s rhetoric of unilateral strikes has so far been devoid of any detailed plan that could achieve US military objectives without destabilizing Pakistan.

McCain, on his part, has accused Obama of advocating a course that would make the job of being an American ally more difficult.  McCain has consistently shown greater care and appreciation for Pakistan’s role and sacrifices in the fight against terrorists. His statements have been carefully crafted and are closer to the realities of the region. Obama’s approach, his latest after-thoughts included, fall short of a roadmap to secure and stabilize that region. His plan seems to rely on traditional tools of arm twisting and barely display a new strategy or direction.

McCain advocates, not only continuous military and economic aid to Pakistan, but also a workable plan to reinforce Pakistan’s ability to fight the extremists. His strategy is based on US experience in stabilizing Iraq’s Al-Anbar province where the US armed the local population to fight insurgents. McCain’s thinking has few similarities with the new Pakistani government’s initial broad FATA policy contours – strengthening the good guys to defeat the bad guys.

As the US Presidential race zeroes in on foreign policy, Afghanistan – and Pakistan by default – are taking center stage. Any candidate offering a more promising strategy, better grasp of ground realities, and convincing strength of leadership will reap big political dividends. Just charisma and oratory will not salvage anyone in this foreign policy minefield.

Obama has just finished his first reality check, and his refined thinking about Pakistan shows his agility, and ability to learn lessons. His groundbreaking international sojourn may prove two things – his inexperience and better judgment. While McCain might have won another argument to prove his foreign policy credentials to American voters, the shift in Obama’s outlook is significant and holds more promise than damage both for the Democratic candidate and Pakistan.

By Jehangir Khattak. The writer is a US-based Pakistani journalist and can be reached at mjehangir@aol.com

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