It didn’t take long for President Barack Obama to resume the United States’ unilateral strikes into Waziristan, the most lawless region of Pakistan that is a key base for Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Last week two missile strikes in North and South Waziristan, along the Pak-Afghan border, killed 22 and injured several others. Foreign militants, their local hosts and their immediate family members were believed to be the casualties.
The Pakistan Government has continued to publicly plead with the United States to stop the missile attacks, but there are doubts as to its sincerity. Although Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi has denied the claim, murmurs of a secret agreement between the two countries to permit the strikes, possibly signed late last year, are getting louder.
Whether or not such an agreement exists, the reality is that the US will continue to largely do as it pleases. Pakistan is arguably in the weakest position it has been in for decades. Widely implicated in the November Mumbai attacks in India and facing persistent militant attacks and economic woes, authorities can ill-afford to upset the country whose military and economic support they depend upon for survival.
That, ironically, should give President Obama significant leverage to reshape US relations with Pakistan, and some believe this is precisely what will happen.
Much has been made of Barack Obama’s first sit-down interview as President. The interview, on the Saudi-backed Al Arabiya satellite channel, was hailed as a welcome early step in bridging the gap between the United States and Arab and Muslim societies. "Americans are not your enemy," Obama said on the show, while in his inauguration speech the President claimed that his administration would "seek a new way forward [with the Muslim world], based on mutual interest and mutual respect".
But for the starved, traumatised, predominantly Muslim population of Gaza, Obama’s silence during and after Israel’s deadly invasion resonates more powerfully than any of his words.
Obama has also promoted leaders like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who have actively colluded with Israel in its siege of Gaza, particularly in the Jewish State’s attempts to destroy the Palestinian Hamas movement.
And then, of course, there are the continued missile strikes in Pakistan.
The disparity between his rhetoric and these acts is glaringly obvious throughout the so-called Muslim world. Here in Pakistan, the recent missile strikes, as well as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, have been denounced in rallies in every major city.
It is, however, early days. And it is arguable that Obama has very little choice at this point but to maintain the status quo, even if he hopes to eventually change the disastrous course of US foreign policy in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.
The Obama Administration is set to undergo a major review of US policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has also said it will treble non-military aid to Pakistan to $US7.5 billion over five years, and attach its delivery to Pakistan’s "performance" in dealing with the Taliban and other militant groups.
Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton-era diplomat who brokered the Dayton Accords between the warring armies of the former Yugoslavia, has been named the new administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whereas the former Bush administration largely entrusted the management of Pakistan’s role in the "war on terror" to client dictator Pervez Musharraf, Holbrooke represents a more hands-on approach from Washington.
However, despite such developments, US engagement in the region will continue to emphasise military options.
During hearings in the US Senate this week US Defence Secretary Robert Gates described the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan as "our greatest military challenge right now".
Before taking office, Obama promised to increase US troop levels in Afghanistan to as much as 60,000. Already the figure has swollen to 36,000 while a further 10,000 are expected in the near future. The US is expected to request other foreign troop numbers to increase, too.
Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told ABC radio that the Australian Government is willing to consider an increase in its commitment, but only if it is part of a shift in the "overarching plan" for the troubled nation. Australia currently has over a thousand service men and women in the country.
In theory, beefing up the number of soldiers to defeat the militants appears to be a sound approach. Afghanistan is arguably the most lawless country in the world, perhaps rivalled only by Somalia and the Congo.
Yet little of the Taliban’s support in recent years has stemmed from ideological sympathies among the ethnic Pashtun tribes of the south and east where it first rose to prominence. In fact, all Afghanis have an age-old tradition of resisting foreign occupiers. That the US-led force and the Karzai Administration that it backs have failed to improve governance and reduce warlordism in the country has helped the Taliban’s cause. It has also helped paint the Taliban, who are well versed in the region’s traditions and tribal politics, as a local resistance movement.
On 18 January, an official from the Afghan Foreign Ministry made a surprisingly direct public statement against "the international community, including some powerful NATO member countries" for supporting certain warlords over the Government in Kabul.
For its part, the Taliban have welcomed the Obama presidency in so far as he has already decided to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camps. But as Reuters reported, the jihadi militants have declared that peace is only possible if the US withdraws its forces from Afghanistan and Iraq.
It might still seem unthinkable, but there is a message in that for Obama.
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