Asia-Pacific

Obama's New 'AfPak' Strategy: The View from Pakistan

Internally Displaced Persons (I.D.P.s) from military operations in the Swat Valley carry a tent at a relief camp on May 8 in Mardan, Northwest Pakistan. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images)

People with a hammer only see nails. This well-worn maxim aptly describes the United States' relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past several decades. As early as 1954, when Pakistan received its first substantial tranche of American military and economic aid, the United States identified the country as a bulwark against regional encroachment by the Soviet Union.

When President Barack Obama announced the new "AfPak" (Afghanistan-Pakistan) policy last month, there were hopes that the hammer-and-nails approach — which saw unaccounted billions in military aid showered on the Pakistan army with the assumption that it alone could bring stability — would be shelved. It will take time to assess whether a shift in policy has been actualized.

The new AfPak policy promises a more focused approach in a number of ways.

The most obvious is the shift in attention from Iraq to Afghanistan. Under George W. Bush, the United States had an uncoordinated strategy in Afghanistan, enabling the Taliban, after being beaten back in 2001 and again in 2002, to recover and reemerge. Since 2004, the Taliban and two independent allied commanders — Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbaddin Hekmatyar — have swept into large swaths of southern, eastern and northern Afghanistan with a series of undeterred offensives.

The idea of negotiating with less extremist elements in the Taliban in Afghanistan was based upon the experience of American and British forces in Iraq, where Sunni militias were paid and trained to fight their former Al Qaeda allies.

The new differentiation between Al Qaeda and the Taliban aims to seek out what has been widely termed "moderate" Taliban. The earlier strategy of treating Al Qaeda and the Taliban as synonymous brought these two diverse entities closer together, both ideologically and practically. Al Qaeda earned access to one of the most isolated regions on the planet — Waziristan in Pakistan — and the Taliban, who before 2002 had little or no experience in guerrilla warfare or suicide attacks, learned insurgency techniques. These days Taliban suicide attacks are a weekly occurrence.

For the more extremist elements in the Taliban and for Al Qaeda, the new AfPak policy signifies an escalated level of deterrence, rather than a major tactical shift by the United States. Missile strikes are expected to increase in scope and regularity within Pakistan, even though Obama promised that operations would only be conducted with Pakistan's permission.

The dilemma for Pakistan's army with the new policy is two-fold. First, it must cooperate with the United States in its pursuit of Taliban in tribal areas to root out extremism and the militant threat in the area. Military and non-military aid to Pakistan promises to be more intricately tied to such cooperation than ever before. Second, if the army fails get hard on the Taliban, which it nurtured for so long in the 1980's, Pakistan risks international isolation.

While Pakistan's infrastructure will surely get a makeover, it will be challenging to develop institutional and social capacity in Pakistan. Whether there will be a marked improvement in standards of living also remains to be seen. The United Nations Human Development Report for 2007-08 conservatively estimates that almost 33 percent of Pakistanis live in poverty.

The most welcomed aspect of the new policy is the emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan's civil institutions over individual leaders like Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf. In what many have described as a "civilian surge," both countries will receive massive injections of cash, projects and experts. Development aid for new schools, roads and clinics has been targeted for Pakistan's tribal areas, around $7.5 billion in non-military aid over five years if the Kerry-Lugar bill passes through the United States Congress.

"Reconstruction opportunity zones," aimed at facilitating development and foreign investment by offering reduced tariffs and other taxes, are also proposed for those areas along the Pak-Afghan border that are most afflicted by the Taliban. The hope is that by creating a free trade and industry zone, employment opportunities will draw young men away from the Taliban.

The AfPak policy cannot succeed unless the poverty upon which the militants prey is addressed. Poverty poses the greatest challenge to Pakistanis, and no promises made by Washington, Brussels or Islamabad will have bearing unless they address it. If faith is to be instilled in a better society based on pluralism, democracy and equal rights, the basic needs of Pakistanis need to be met.

Mustafa Qadri (mustafaqadri.net) is Middle East and South Asia correspondent for The Diplomat magazine and newmatilda.com. This article was published by the Common Ground News Service, www.commongroundnews.com.

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