A little over two months after assuming the United States presidency, Barack Obama is making waves in all directions. He leads at a time of multiple crises. The collapse of the economic and financial system, with worldwide consequences and a growing human cost, take center stage in the public discourse in America and Europe. But the threat of terrorism is not far behind.
The West frets over the risk of another attack. A continent away in Afghanistan, Pakistan and, in recent days, in Iraq, violence takes increasing numbers of lives every day. As Pakistan becomes the latest country to suffer a breakdown in order, new fears arise in the region and beyond. It is going to be a severe test of President Obama’s evolving policy on the Afghan-Pakistan front.
The suicide bombing on a Shi’a mosque in Chakwal, in the north of Punjab province, on April 5, 2009 appears to confirm a pattern in the escalating cycle of violence in Pakistan. Some twenty people were blown up in the attack, including the suicide bomber, reported to be a boy dressed in black. Up to a hundred were wounded. For some years, conventional wisdom had been that militant havens existed only in tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan frontier. And attacks were launched on both sides from bases in the autonomous tribal belt. It is not the case, not any longer even if it might have been before.
The assassination of Pakistan‘s former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, in December 2007 was a political earthquake. It laid bare the rapid proliferation of insurgency to the heart of Pakistani society. In September 2008, the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was targeted, killing over fifty victims and injuring many more. Violence by the Taliban and their affiliates has since spread to other parts of Punjab province. Then came the attack on Sri Lanka‘s cricket team in early March 2009 to the south in Lahore. The attack did much damage to Pakistan‘s image as a destination for foreign visitors and forced this year’s Indian Premier League, a money-spinning cricket competition that attracts the world’s top players, out to South Africa.
America under President Obama has abandoned the doctrine of overwhelming military force as the sole option to deal with the terrorist threat. His evolving policy is complex, more nuanced. It aims to enter into a dialogue with sections of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan and isolate Al-Qaeda. The new administration accepts that America cannot impose its will and its own political system anywhere it chooses. It is not possible to transform traditional societies into modern ones all of a sudden. And Washington must have the ‘exit strategy’, but must stabilize and rebuild before taking the desired exit route.
Therein lies the problem. To stabilize and to rebuild means to keep the military and civilian presence in Afghanistan. It necessitates use of military power to control the campaign of violence by militants. Increased American and allied presence, military and civilian, provides the enemy with a greater number of targets. The result could be higher casualties. A determination made to keep the occupation finite involves negotiating with the adversary. And a deadline to expand the domain of constitutional order and peace. However, forces that are there in the region to restore order also provoke resistance.
In Pakistan, America relies on attacks by unmanned aircraft against diehard militants and the capability and the willingness of Pakistan‘s security forces. Close secretive ties between Islamist groups and the military since the CIA proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan go back to the 1980s. These ties have proved impossible to break, despite persistent efforts of the United States.
For now, a definite pattern appears to be taking shape. Every American missile which targets a suspected militant hideout reportedly kills some militants, but also civilians. Retaliation by the militants, a Taliban or allied group, follows. Can President Obama achieve what has been illusive for years? That is Obama’s enigma.
Deepak Tripathi, former BBC journalist, is an author and a researcher. His book, Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, is to be published by Potomac Books this year. His works can be found on http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at: [email protected].