Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Juan Cole: Obama's Vietnam?

Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

On Friday, President Barack Obama ordered an Air Force drone to bomb two separate Pakistani villages, killing what Pakistani officials said were 22 individuals, including between four and seven foreign fighters. Many of Obama's initiatives in his first few days in office -- preparing to depart Iraq, ending torture and closing Guantánamo -- were aimed at signaling a sharp turn away from Bush administration policies. In contrast, the headline about the strike in Waziristan could as easily have appeared in December with "President Bush" substituted for "President Obama." Pundits are already worrying that Obama may be falling into the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam trap, of escalating a predecessor's halfhearted war into a major quagmire. ...

The risk Obama takes in continuing the Bush administration policy of bombing Pakistani territory is provoking further anger in the public of that country against the United States and harming the legitimacy of Zardari's fragile elected government. A Gallup poll done last summer found that 45 percent of Pakistanis believe that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan poses a threat to their country. Of Pakistanis who expressed an opinion on the matter, an overwhelming majority believed that the cooperation between the U.S. and the Pakistani military in the "war on terror" has mainly benefited Washington. If a more muscular American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan sufficiently angers the Pakistani public, they could start voting for religious parties, delivering a nuclear state into the hands of Muslim fundamentalists.

The fundamentalist Jamaat-i Islami (JI), led by Qazi Husain Ahmad, held a rally of several thousand protesters in the Pakistani capital on Friday to protest the drone attacks and the ongoing military campaigns in FATA. (I saw the demonstration on satellite television, and it was clearly bigger than the wire services reported.) The coalition of religious parties of which the JI formed part was dealt a crushing rejection by the Pakistani electorate last February, but for the U.S. to continually bombard Pakistani territory could be a wedge issue whereby they return to political influence. Whereas the Jamaat-i Islami had welcomed Obama's new path in the Muslim world before the strikes, the JI leader blasted the new president in their aftermath.

Obama's policy toward Pakistan is not solely military. He appointed as his special advisor on Pakistan and Afghanistan veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who played an important role in peace negotiations over Bosnia in the 1990s. The new president, who has praised Pakistan's return to civilian parliamentary rule, has pledged to triple civilian aid. Opinion polling shows that more civilian development monies and less focus on military equipment are precisely what a majority of the Pakistani public want. Obama also intends to tie the annual amount of military aid released to the actual performance of the Pakistani military in preventing cross-border raids of FATA militants into Afghanistan. Allegations have swirled for the past year that rogue cells in the feared Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistani military have been actively sending the militants to hit targets inside Afghanistan, including the Indian embassy at Kabul.

Despite the positive harbingers from Obama of a new, civilian-friendly foreign policy that will devote substantial resources to human development, the very first practical step he took in Pakistan was to bomb its territory. This resort to violence from the skies even before Obama had initiated discussions with Islamabad is a bad sign. ...


Take note Mr. President, look the experts don't seem to like your plan for Afghanistan. Yeah, these are big, big experts, you should listen to the big experts, no?


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