360° Analysis

Obama and AfPak: A Continuation of Regional Interests


June 08, 2013 08:09 EDT

For peace to have any prospects, the Obama administration has no option but to engage closely with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The US was in an unprecedented foreign policy crisis when Barack Obama first took office in January 2009 due to its military engagements in two of the modern history’s longest and costliest wars: the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. Unsatisfactorily ending the latter, the US still continues with its involvement in the AfPak region as part of the on-going War on Terror.

Obama: Merely a Politician?

Re-elected to the Oval Office in 2012, President Obama has a second chance to redeem his legacy in the volatile region torn by war and terrorism. The US foreign policy behaviour during the past decade can be interpreted as traditional of a superpower, according to power politics paradigm, that takes pride in its military might and displays excessive use of it, at times unnecessarily. Nevertheless, Obama holds his own bag of failures with wrong decisions, missed opportunities and mistaken policies — even if seen outside of the power politics paradigm.

Observing Obama’s leadership, one is struck by a surprising question as to whether he is merely a politician or statesman with a vision and a thorough plan. A politician’s presidential prospects are debatable and subject to their political fortunes and outlook. But once a president starts serving time in office, it puts their potential to test and critique, which is often not positive.

Obama has proven his potential as a good campaigner. Judging by his public speaking skills, one wishes he could negotiate deals just as well as when he lays out his policy plans in speeches. Looking back to 2009, after getting over from his presidential rhetoric, the US president offered little on his policy agenda that could be appreciated concerning the AfPak region.

President Obama made his first visit to Afghanistan during his presidential campaign in July 2008, and later made three subsequent visits in March and December of 2010, and May 2012, after he was elected. In retrospect, these visits were made for scoring political points than for really improving matters of bilateral or regional concerns.

Although, Obama stayed in Pakistan for three weeks as a college graduate in 1981 on his way back from Indonesia after visiting his mother and half sister, clearly it had little to do with his then future ambitions. He is yet to make his official visit to Pakistan as a head of state, and there are no such plans predicted. In contrast, he chose to make a four-day visit to India in November 2010, which shows the US strategic tilt towards the new emerging regional power.

For a country like Pakistan, which is America’s major non-NATO ally and its partner in the War on Terrorism, it not only gives an impression of neglect in its due strategic importance. This gesture also suggests that President Obama is not keen on pursuing any improvement in relations with Pakistan directly as a leader, and that he prefers to leave it to his administration instead to patch up the holes left by his government’s policies.

An Embodiment of Realist Politics

In a lot of ways, politics in the US has still to grow ideologically and take roots in philosophical grounds. Despite having been a democratically elected president, and whose political mind should have an approach from a social liberalist perspective, Obama is still expected to embed his leadership feet on a power-realist platform that could give him a vantage point to understanding his military and strategic advisors.

Thus, to this end, whoever is the commander-in-chief in the US, it reflects little upon the conduct of foreign policy under presidential leadership, particularly with countries where Washington is involved militarily, rather than on economic or humanitarian levels. Therefore, US foreign policy is largely an embodiment of realist politics than one based on liberalist paradigm, especially with regards to the AfPak region where even the liberal voices in the US seem to have turned conservative on foreign policy issues.

The urge to assert its global superpower status that the US often displays with its powerful military muscle hinders its cause of democratisation and institutional capacity building, which requires non-aggressive diplomacy and military non-interventionism.

President Obama must demonstrate that he is capable of making independent political decisions that are not influenced by the military policies of the Pentagon in any manner. The fallout of his policies in the AfPak region is going to cost him much more in the long run than that incurred by quick-fix military campaigns offering surgically precise solutions like drones. However, in all fairness to Obama, he had little foreign policy options with regards to the US military involvement in the AfPak region due to George Bush’s policies which were already in action when he took power.

To appraise Obama’s foreign policy on the AfPak region, we have three factors to consider: what role did he envision for the US in the region; how much the Congress supported or opposed him on his policies on the region; and what his AfPak experts advised him to do and what came of those political insights.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised that he would end the war in Afghanistan and simply bring the troops home. However, after taking office, he was hit by the reality of the situation on the ground and, as advised by his strategic and defence experts, he twice ordered a sizeable increase in the number of US troops in the country. He also urged Washington’s NATO allies to pledge more forces, much to the dismay of the US Congress. During his surprise visit to Bagram Air Base in 2012, the US president signed a bilateral agreement and talked about starting a “new chapter” where there would be no war. Given how despairingly bleak the prospects of stability and peace in the AfPak region still look, it would be only foolhardy to expect Obama’s promised “new chapter” to begin anytime soon.

Nevertheless, Obama’s diplomatic and military advisors are satisfied with US efforts in the AfPak region. He might have accomplished what his advisors wanted, but has failed on moral and political grounds. The conservative estimates are that the coalition forces formed under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have lost 3,284 soldiers with more than 23,500 wounded. In contrast, the Afghan Security Forces have lost more than 14,500 soldiers. But more worryingly, with up to 19,000 deaths and still counting, the Afghan civilian population has paid a much higher cost of the military campaign in their country.

Training it Own Enemies

The situation in Afghanistan is now exhibiting a “turning the table around” syndrome, with more “green-on-blue attacks” being reported each day with the suspicion falling on the Afghan insurgents. Infiltration is an old guerilla warfare tactic and by using this, the extremists have entered the Afghan Security Forces. The US should have been more vigilant during the recruitment process and checked the psychological status of the trainees. If the situation deteriorates further, it could very well look like that the US ended up training its own enemies. Falling short on the military front reflects adversely on Obama.

The US president said that he would strongly tackle the Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership in Pakistan during both the presidential campaigns. Furthermore, he abides with the view that if Pakistan shows reluctance to cooperate, he will disregard its state sovereignty to pursue the militants. Based on this directive, he authorised the secret military operation that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. On the one hand, it is an achievement for the on-going War on Terror. But on the other, it has disappointed Pakistan as the country has insisted that the US share its intelligence, provide a strong case for any other unilateral action it intends to take, and that Islamabad is willing to cooperate.

Genuine questions have been raised on Pakistan’s sincerity in combating terrorism, especially after the discovery of Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad near the Pakistani Army’s headquarters. Obama’s response has been the continued use and deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also called drones, which were first used by President Bush to reserve from sending troops on the ground. There were 52 drone attacks from 2004 to 2007. But since President Obama’s term started in 2009, they have increased significantly, now totalling up to 316 drone strikes (368 overall).

Killing More Civilians Than Terrorists

However, these drone strikes have been a source of severe criticism for both President Obama and the US military amid mounting questions over their legality and efficacy. Many non-partisan research reports have suggested that these drone attacks are killing more civilians than terrorists. Drone strikes are illegal since their targets are deemed to be ambiguous, and thus corroborating claims that they are ineffective tools to combat terrorism. According to estimates, 98% of the deaths resulting from drone strikes are civilian and not of the intended high-profile terrorists. Moreover, Pakistan has not explicitly granted permission for conducting these drone attacks within its territory. The conservative estimates of civilian casualties due to drone strikes stand at around 3,157.

But growing pressure and criticism has not deterred the US from using drone strikes. Instead, the US calls the deaths collateral damage, while maintaining that its strategy is the best possible option to ensure zero casualties of American troops. This is in complete disregard of Pakistan’s sovereignty and its persistent requests to stop them. On the contrary, the top US military and intelligence brass is rather in favour of increasing drone strikes in Pakistan. The Obama administration has not been forthcoming regarding details of these planned drone strikes, and calls the strategy a “state secret”.

With regards to the AfPak region, President Obama’s policies appear to be a continuation of his strategy adopted in his first term. For many, he would appear guilty as charged for escalating the war rather than curtailing it, and also for mishandling relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan — especially with the latter which it considers its frontline ally and which has seen more terrorist networks mushrooming on its territory due to a spillage from Afghanistan.

The fault with the American foreign policy is that the balance between its responsibilities as a superpower and national interests, is unabashedly skewed in the direction of the latter. It holds its own strategic interests far above all else, ignoring that there are other global and regional powers with stakes in the affairs that the US enters into. To this end, the global leadership that the US aims for, turns out as unilateral interests-based adventurism. In contrast, the US could arguably achieve the same degree of influence with humanitarian engagement, rather than with its military might.

The textbook case of this is the AfPak region. The US is again seeking its own strategic dominance in the region and does not want other stakeholders like Russia, China, India and Iran to gain an upper hand in obtaining that status of influence in Afghanistan. The US has to learn to stop viewing the world from an American-centric attitude, and to think beyond its exceptionalism.

It is not the only entity involved in Afghanistan’s rebuilding efforts, and nor is it the only political stakeholder in it. Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan are significant in terms of other regional powers reaching out for the same leverage.

For a long-term sustainable policy against terrorism, the US has to prepare itself beyond what is in its immediate national interests in the AfPak region. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan also must view their relations with the US beyond these current issues in favour of long-term bonds.

Democratising the Country?

In the AfPak region, unless the US reaches out to the real local leaders of the various ethnic groups that make up the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it will be wasting time in negotiations with their current political representatives. The problem is not as nationalistic as it appears from the outside, but more ideological, ethnic, racial, and local. The corruption in the current Afghan government might result in another unfair presidential election. Worse, any possibility of President Hamid Karzai entrenching his power with local warlords may change the entire democratic equation in the fragile country. Considering how precarious the situation remains in Afghanistan, President Obama did not play an effective role in democratising the country and did nothing to mitigate the political, social, and economic crises afflicting the nation. Building the Afghan institutions must remain Obama’s foremost task, without which no strategy to stabilize the country would work.

Even after the US pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014, issues are likely to remain unresolved thus leaving Pakistan, India, Iran, and Afghanistan having to deal with them.

Public opinion in Pakistan is in favour of the US departure from the region. At the same time, the Pakistani establishment has warned that abandoning the region amid deep-running political instability, a by-product of its own military policies, will result in further instability. Memories of America’s "betrayal" following from departure of Soviet troops from Afghanistan are still fresh in the minds of several Pakistani generations.

To support democratic values in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington has to make sure that those who favour strong extremist elements over weak civilian governments "subservient" to Western interests should have a reason to believe otherwise. But the US has not championed this cause by demanding the right answers from the AfPak leadership. Rather, it appears more focused on simply executing its exit strategy by 2014, leaving the mess behind — reminiscent of its indifference after the Soviet pullout.

President Obama’s leadership has been focusing on forming military alliances in order to contain China’s regional and global influence. However, it has neglected to do the same with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given that there is a huge mistrust on both sides, it is indeed difficult to enter into any military alliance, which is the most advanced form of partnership that states have in the global political system. However, starting with the strategic dialogues is a positive step toward achieving that goal in the near future in the AfPak region. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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