This is the second in a series of reports from Nation correspondents analyzing the impact of Barack Obama’s international fact-finding tour.
Barack Obama’s Middle East tour got off to a bloody start. No sooner had the Democratic presidential hopeful landed in Afghanistan than news came that thirteen Afghan police and civilians had been killed in the country.
Their killers were not the Taliban or al Qaeda but NATO international forces. Four police and five civilians were killed in a “mistaken” NATO airstrike in Farah province. And four civilians died when misplaced NATO mortar fire hit a house in Paktika province.
The International Red Cross says more than 100 civilians have been killed this month by NATO or US Special Forces fire, including fifty at a wedding on July 6. It’s not clear whether this is more or fewer than the civilians slain by the Taliban. But the count would surely bring home to Obama the fact that Afghanistan is a black-and-white conflict only from a distance.
It’s easy to see why the Senator from Illinois chose the country as his first stop. Of all the receptions he will get, Kabul will be the warmest. For Obama Afghanistan is the right war, “the central front in the battle against terorism”; Iraq was the wrong war, “a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.” Last week he said, if elected President, he would pull most American troops out of Iraq by 2010 and add 7,000 to the 36,000 already in Afghanistan.
Obama also seems to agree with the Afghan regime’s diagnosis of the fundamental problem facing their country: it’s not corruption or underdevelopment or even bumper opium crops that fuel insurgents and warlords alike, including some of President Hamid Karzai’s “allies.” The core issue is the existence of Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries on the other side of the Afghan border in Pakistan.
Obama met Karzai for lunch on Sunday. No statement was issued. “I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking,” he said. But it’s clear what he would have heard.
Karzai has blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency for orchestrating a wave of attacks in Afghanistan, including a suicide car bomb that killed fifty-eight people outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul earlier this month. India repeated the charge. Pakistan has rigorously denied the accusation.
Washington and NATO have kept their own counsel. But there is no disguising their frustration with the Pakistan government’s new policy of peacemaking with pro-Taliban tribesmen on the borderlands with Afghanistan. This, US commanders allege, has allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda a free run into Afghanistan. And that is the main cause of a spike in NATO and US casualties.
Last week NATO forces amassed on the Afghan side of the border, pitching mortars at Taliban and/or Al Qaeda “targets” inside Pakistan. The forces withdrew on July 18. But the signal was clear, and Obama gave it voice. “We must make it clear if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out…terrorist targets like [Osama] bin Laden if we have them in our sights,” he said on July 15.
Where Obama says he differs from the Bush Administration is that his presidency would not place “all of America’s eggs in the basket” of one man–which, since 9/11, has been Pakistan’s ex-military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. On July 15 Obama co-sponsored a Senate bill that, if passed, would triple non-military aid to Pakistan to $15 billion over the next decade. The aim is “to align ourselves with Pakistan and its people,” he said. The assumption is a democratic dispensation would be more amenable to American demands.
Obama should be careful what he wishes for. Whatever frustration he feels toward Islamabad’s current approach to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the policy reflects Pakistani public sentiment. According to a poll released by the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) on July 17, 71 percent of Pakistanis support political dialogue with the Taliban and only 9 percent back military force. An IRI poll in February showed 89 percent wanting their government to have no truck with the US “war on terror.” Sixty-four percent said America–rather than the Taliban or Al Qaeda–represented the “greatest single threat” to their nation.
Mass attitudes like these explain why any elected Pakistan government would be timorous in dealing with the Taliban. And why nothing would undermine its democratic legitimacy more than a unilateral American action on Pakistani soil.
It’s a shame Pakistan was not a stop on Obama’s journey, particularly its provincial capitals of Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi. Had he been “listening” there, he might have heard something he doesn’t already know.