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Now the Hard Part: Implementing “Af-Pak”

Now that his administration has completed its review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama gets to the hard part: how to prevent the Talibanization of both countries.

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(Inter Press Service)

With the strategic review for U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan now complete, President Barack Obama must shift to the more difficult task of choosing and implementing policies to quell militant insurgencies in both countries, says a new report from a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.

While the establishment last year of a civilian government in Pakistan was a positive sign, some situations have worsened, says a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Called “Meeting the Challenges in Pakistan,” the report is based on the findings of a CAP delegation that traveled to Pakistan in April.

CAP calls the past six months a “tumultuous period” for the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim country. Recent events have clearly intensified Pakistan’s troubles.

On May 27, the day the report was released, a car bomb set off by insurgents near an intelligence office in Lahore killed as many as 30 people.

While a battle continues to rage between Taliban fighters and the Pakistani military in Swat, located near the lawless northwest border regions with Afghanistan, the bombing was a reminder that Islamist militants can strike throughout the country—even as far east as Lahore.

On May 28, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and issued a warning for people to evacuate four large cities in anticipation of more strikes, which a Taliban commander told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper were in response to the military’s offensive against the insurgents now in control of the Swat Valley, formerly a popular tourist destination.

The warning was followed by two blasts the same day—one in Peshawar and another in Dera Ismail Khan.

The recent widespread violence will likely raise Pakistani objections to broad U.S. involvement. Already, some Pakistanis are criticizing the Pakistan army’s offensive around Swat as a U.S.-driven policy. In addition, the U.S. unmanned drone attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan have provoked widespread anger among the Pakistani population and elected officials.

Those attacks are likely to continue with the appointment of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to head U.S. forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal headed special operations during the U.S. “surge” in Iraq; his unit was responsible for targeted strikes against insurgents.

But the CAP report implies that Pakistani objections may come from what CAP calls a “trust deficit” built by years of a “transactional” relationship between the United States and Pakistan—where real dialogue occurred only when it was convenient and important to the more powerful United States. CAP mentions that Pakistanis often cite U.S. abandonment of the region after robust U.S. involvement helped end the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

One way to bridge the gap, says CAP, is to provide more aid for people displaced by fighting with insurgents. (Congress allocated $110 million to this effort last month.) CAP cites the quick aid response to Pakistan’s devastating 2005 earthquake as having built some trust.

Another example of the dysfunctional bilateral relationship, often cited in the CAP report, was the strictly “war on terror”-based approach of the George W. Bush administration. Little focus was put on building institutions or development, and the roughly $10 billion of U.S. aid to Pakistan —then ruled by military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf—was almost entirely of a military nature (for more on this issue, see Najum Mushtaq, “Whither Af-Pak?” Right Web, April 16, 2009).

CAP maintains the importance of fighting terror, but says a better way to go would be to strengthen Pakistan’s judiciary and police forces, which CAP calls “more effective weapons [than the military] in countering terrorist networks.”

CAP’s report re-emphasizes its last assessment of the situation: that what’s needed is a broader, permanent U.S.-Pakistani relationship, which at first should take the form of a signed “bilateral strategic framework,” as well as a regional dialogue on bringing stability to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The broad relationship, says CAP, should include “security, military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic, educational and cultural affairs.”

The regional dialogue should be aimed at allowing Pakistan to focus its resources on the insurgency by alleviating tensions with its traditional rival, India. The Pakistani army’s tunnel vision has raised doubts in the United States about the military force’s ability to act against the Taliban and allied groups, a concern that was recently aired in the immediate lead-up to the campaign in Swat.

Though the army did indeed launch its offensive and is expected, with its firepower advantage, to force the Taliban back, it appears to remain greatly focused on India, which could interfere with its long-term commitment to battling the insurgency.

Because of this continued Pakistani focus, says the CAP report, “the Obama administration should also reengage in regional diplomacy that seeks to revive dialogue between Pakistan and India, including a discussion of Kashmir.” There may be hope on that front, if reported secret talks can be rekindled between the newly elected leaders of India and Pakistan.

According to a March article in the New Yorker magazine, several years of secret “back channel” negotiations had occurred between India and Pakistan, which were at one point “so advanced that [negotiations had] come to semicolons,” as one Pakistani official put it.

But neither side softened up their populations for a deal, and Pakistani instability delayed talks, which were halted after Musharraf’s fall from power.

But the instability that slowed progress has worsened, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s government appears to lack strong popular support. Popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif recently organized a widespread protest against Zardari’s government—hardly an ideal situation to sell a deal to the Pakistani populace.

The CAP report also mentions three other players that should be included in a regional dialogue: Russia, China, and Iran.

But bringing together these giants may not happen quickly enough to be useful to Pakistan. “Resetting” strained relations with Russia and the first comprehensive U.S. attempts to engage Iran in decades are both moving at a snail’s pace.

In a recent Washington Post Op-Ed, analyst Ahmed Rashid said that calls for at least one year of unconditioned aid to Pakistan “may be too late. Pakistan needs help today.” That notion could easily apply to regional dialogue as well.

Recent U.S. efforts on the diplomatic front, however, could backfire. According to a May 27 report by the McClatchy newspaper company, Washington is planning to build a network of embassy and consular offices, most notably a complex in Islamabad costing nearly as much as the massive embassy in Baghdad—a highly unpopular, fortress-like compound that is regarded as a sign of U.S. imperial power.

“[The embassy is] for the micro and macro management of Pakistan, and using Pakistan for pushing the American agenda in Central Asia,” Khurshid Ahmad, a Pakistani parliamentarian, told McClatchy.

This “diplomatic surge” could also be aimed at securing better U.S. intelligence on the tribes and militant groups that straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

A May 24 Boston Globe report said the United States is launching a similar “intensive effort” aimed at determining whether some Afghan tribes “can be broken off through diplomatic and economic initiatives.”

Ali Gharib writes for the Inter Press Service and PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org).

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