Amid continued violence, from the Holy Land to South Asia, 2008 was a year of defining moments. Although the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States was a promising historical watershed, his impact in the Israel-Palestine conflict may be limited given his unflinching support for Israel and appointment of key foreign policy advisers, such as Hillary Clinton and Dennis Ross, who are unquestioning Israel sympathisers. Obama’s rhetoric about unilateral strikes in Pakistan and increasing US troop numbers in Afghanistan suggests a transfer of US military power from the catastrophic occupation of Iraq to the troubled gateway to Asia.
South Asia becomes the ‘new’ battleground
"Today, virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas [between Pakistan and Afghanistan]," remarked CIA Director Michael Hayden at the Atlantic Council in November. The greatest challenge for Pakistan in the coming year will be to convince the world that it is addressing these threats.
Last month’s Mumbai attacks undoubtedly hastened that challenge. Along with India, Afghanistan and Pakistan returned to international attention after several years on the periphery. Significantly, the increased attention does not reflect an upsurge in violence but rather the increased targeting of Westerners.
The resignation of Pervez Musharraf as President in August was the first time that formal parliamentary proceedings caused the removal of a military head in Pakistan. This time last year, when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was still alive, few could have imagined that Musharraf would be replaced by Asif Ali Zardari. It was a remarkable revival for Zardari, a man who spent almost 12 years in prison between 1990 and 2004. In September Zardari was elected President by Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies.
Pakistan’s economy deteriorated significantly in 2008 and the decline is expected to continue in 2009. It will make the push for stability even more difficult. Inflation hovered between 20 to 30 per cent throughout the year, while energy supplies struggled to cope with demands leading to long, daily blackouts in every major city. With its foreign reserves dwindling at an alarming rate, Pakistan was compelled to sign a $US7.6 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund in early November.
The army remains Pakistan’s most powerful institution — as evidenced by the civilian government’s inability to increase oversight of the powerful military intelligence organisation, the Inter-Services Intelligence.
If the Army remained the most powerful force within Pakistan, the United States remained the greatest influence outside. Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders met High US officials before and after commencing their appointments this year.
The Pakistan Army accelerated operations in its tribal areas under intense pressure from the US. Although it boasted of killing many hundreds of militants throughout the year, ordinary civilians suffered the most. Estimates of displaced persons range from 400,000 to 900,000.
The US too increased strikes in Pakistan’s Waziristan region where the Taliban is at its strongest. The strikes killed almost a hundred civilians and a few alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. There have been over 22 US missile strikes and three attempted ground assaults in Pakistan since Musharraf’s resignation in August.
Although President Hamid Karzai evaded Pervez Musharraf’s fate, an increasing number of observers at home and abroad expect him to lose the elections slated for next year. Disdainfully described as the Mayor of Kabul, Karzai has struggled to exert influence beyond the Afghanistan’s capital. Nor has his policy of supporting warlords done much for the development of infrastructure, services or institutional capacity within the country. Despite a series of cabinet reshuffles in 2008, Karzai’s power still depends upon continued Western support and local warlords.
The Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan, particularly in the south and east, continued to increase, although talk of the militants taking Kabul was greatly exaggerated. A relative oasis of peace for the past several years, Kabul became an increased target for Taliban attacks. In March, the insurgents tried to assassinate President Karzai and cabinet ministers during a military parade. Several foreign aid workers were kidnapped or killed during the year.
The Karzai Government stepped up efforts to recruit members of the Taliban and even publicly offered to reconcile with Mullah Omar, founder of the Afghan Taliban movement, if he renounced his ties with Al Qaeda, stopped attacks on Afghan and foreign forces and acknowledged the Afghan constitution established under US auspices in 2004.
Similar ideas were voiced by Britain’s Ambassador and top military commander in Afghanistan, as well as the French Chief of the Army and the UN’s top official in Afghanistan, Kai Eide. "We all know that we cannot win it militarily," Eide said at a press conference in Kabul. "It has to be won through… political engagement [with the Taliban]."
These sentiments appear to be gaining ground among US planners too, including CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who has been retained by the Obama administration.
In Israel like Pakistan a leader was forced to resign, this time under a cloud of corruption allegations. Ehud Olmert announced his resignation but remains caretaker Prime Minister until Israelis go to the polls in February next year. He has ratcheted up the rhetoric about a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Olmert even compared ultra-orthodox Jewish settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron to a "pogrom", unprecedented for an Israeli leader. Many see his words as empty statements by a man soon to be out of power. But they nevertheless point to the underlying reality that the continued seizure of Palestinian land in Jerusalem and the West Bank, along with a brutal blockade of the Gaza Strip, are at the heart of the conflict.
No doubt the silver lining amid the grey clouds was the June ceasefire negotiated between the Hamas Government in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli Government. The ceasefire did reduce the violence this year, but it was far from non-violent. According to the UN, 433 Palestinians were killed and 2011 injured as a result of the conflict. Thirty Israelis were killed and 106 injured.
With elections to be held in Israel and Palestine, and a new President in the White House, one can only hope that the New Year brings with it the promise of more dialogue and less violence. Thus far, however, the signs have not been good.
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