No change in policy
BY the time this article appears the results of the American election should be known in what was an unexpectedly tight race. There are many reasons why this race was as close as it was. Most impartial observers agree that Barack Obama did as well as could reasonably be expected given the mess he inherited from the Bush administration.
A rise in racial prejudice played a part but the main reason to my mind was the polarisation (only partly racial) that polluted the political atmosphere in Washington and was, again to my mind, the chief reason for Obama not being able to become the ‘agent of change’ he aspired to be in 2008.
In so far as our region is concerned, who the next incumbent is is really not very material. If there was one thing that emerged clearly from the otherwise inane presidential debate on foreign policy and the vice-presidential debate it was that there is little daylight between the positions of Obama and Mitt Romney on Afghanistan and by extension on Pakistan.
This policy will unfortunately focus on the one hand on the negative — the danger of the collapse of a dysfunctional Afghan administration leading to civil war and the danger of a nuclear-armed Pakistan becoming further destabilised. On the other hand, it will focus on the completion of the withdrawal of American and Nato forces by 2014 or even earlier.
In Pakistan not only is anti-Americanism rife, much of it has been aimed at Obama. In a poll of 22 countries carried out to determine which presidential candidate was more favourably viewed, only in Pakistan did Romney secure a higher favourable rating.
This is ironic because in recent history no newly elected US president, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon in 1968, came to office with a greater knowledge of and greater sympathy for Pakistan than Obama.
As a young man he had spent his holidays in Pakistan. He had made many friends here and appeared, at least initially, to understand Pakistan’s perspective that enduring stability in South Asia and the fight against extremism in the region required a settlement of the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan.
He did propose that his special envoy be an envoy to the region (Afghanistan, Pakistan and India). But he was forced to give way when India objected and when his State Department mandarins pleaded that this would undo the special relationship with India that had been assiduously built over the last decade. They also pleaded that India and Pakistan appeared to be making progress in back-channel talks on reaching some agreement on Kashmir and that this could best be left to them.
Our ire when India was removed from the mandate was understandable but that did not mean that we should have rejected the basic axiom in international affairs that in any relationship the correlation of forces has to be taken into account just as much as questions of national honour and prestige.
Administering a direct slap in the face by rejecting the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill was not, we should have realised, the best way of retaining the sympathies of the man who led the world’s only superpower. This of course is history, something that we are not known to learn from. What matters now is what can be expected in the immediate future.
Certainly an effort will be made by the White House incumbent to maintain relations with Pakistan on an even keel even while concern continues about the growth of extremism and Pakistan continues to be viewed as a ‘ frenemy’.
After all, Pakistan’s cooperation will be needed if the withdrawal of foreign forces is to be completed by end-2014 or, as I believe, even earlier. The relationship will, as we are fond of saying, continue to be transactional since it has now become almost impossible for us to acknowledge that we have interests in common with the Americans.
Will the White House occupant work out an agreement with the new Afghan president to be elected in April 2014 to maintain a residual presence? Perhaps not if the current rate of ‘green on blue’ incidents continues and if the Afghans remain obdurate in trying various ways to reduce immunity from local laws for US forces.
Will a more vigorous pursuit of reconciliation, which appears to have ground to a halt, be the priority for the White House? Perhaps, but the stronger inclination will be to suggest that this would be a long-drawn-out process and should therefore be left to the Afghans to work out after the withdrawal of foreign forces.
It will be argued that the Afghan National Security Forces would be strong enough to prevent a Taliban takeover and the Taliban would realise that they cannot achieve outright victory. In the meanwhile the Afghan Taliban will continue to be in Pakistan and we will have a new flood of refugees as the economy in Afghanistan suffers a severe downturn with the winding down of international aid and military operations.
Will the fight against terrorism and the employment of drones for this purpose come to a halt? The recent disclosure of anti-terrorism plans drawn up in Washington makes it clear that this will remain a focus of American policy for the next decade no matter who is in the White House. How will this be done without bases in Afghanistan is a problem that the Americans will have to work on but a solution may well be akin to the secret presence the Americans maintained in Badaber in the 1960s.