Pakistan: Obama's Achilles' Heel

If we set aside the celebretology that passes for media coverage of the Obama administration, the new president's performance in the first 100 days would still earn a very high grade. On the foreign policy front in particular, President Obama has breathtakingly departed from the old script, setting the stage for dramatic changes in the way the United States deals with the world and the surfeit of crises facing it.

If the media were not so preoccupied with the adoring masses that greeted the president and how he greeted the Queen of England and the King of Saudi Arabia, not to mention the stylistic differences between first ladies Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni, it would have highlighted the significance of the president's historic assertion in Prague.

Addressing the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons, Obama said, "As a nuclear power -- as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon -- the United States has a moral responsibility to act." This is the first time that an American president -- since Harry Truman dropped the bombs on Japan -- has sought to secure the moral high ground in the nonproliferation debate with a tacit admission of American guilt.

Perhaps Obama could have gone a little further and mentioned that the U.S. is also the only nuclear-weapons power that refuses to renounce the first-use option, which is a doctrinal ruse for some "rogue" powers to acquire nuclear weapon capability. Nevertheless, Obama's concession lends credence to his call for the strategic goal of total global disarmament, not just selective arms control measures for the weapons powers and denial of any nuclear deterrence to others.

Equally groundbreaking were Obama's conciliatory overtures toward Muslim countries, including the recalcitrant Iran, which will have a salubrious impact in the psychological context of the conflict between Islam and the West. His first bilateral visit to Turkey is a tactical triumph in winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people in the Muslim countries, a feat he will possibly repeat even more spectacularly when, later this year, he visits Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood.

Obama also made good on his campaign pledge to refurbish America's image in the world, when he reached out to our southern bête noirs Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua at the Summit of the Americas and altered the tenor and tone of U.S. policy toward Cuba. He is clearly playing to the global galleries and that will stand America in good stead even if its actual policy changes will be incremental and cautious. The name of Obama's game seems to be public relations and prudence.

Now to the bad news.

Obama's recently unveiled policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, or what the State Department calls the Afpak policy, is nothing but old vinegar in a new vial. His decision to augment multinational forces in Afghanistan with additional three American brigades and his failure to persuade NATO countries to contribute more combat troops merely ensures that the limited war in that country will remain protracted and inconclusive.

Neither his conditional multibillion-dollar aid to Pakistan (with added emphasis on entirely impractical human and infrastructure development) nor his pledge to continue unmanned attacks against Taliban holdouts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border will bring the U.S. anywhere close to, as Obama termed it, "disrupt, deflect and defeat" al-Qaida and its radical allies.

At best, it betrays that the policy was crafted by the same State Department bureaucrat(s) who, during the Clinton administration, came up with the policy to "cap, rollback and eliminate" India's nuclear weapon program. We know how that ended.

But most of all, the success of Obama's policy is precluded by the perilous state of the Pakistani polity and society.

Today, Pakistan is not in the grips of the traditional Troika -- landed gentry, military brass and the bureaucratic elite -- but is being torn asunder by a disparate Quartet. The consensus of the Pakistani establishment that held the country together for the first 30-odd years of its existence has collapsed with the induction of Islamists into the rank and file.

These Islamists, who beneath the surface are actually the alienated poor without class consciousness, were systematically patronized by the Zia ul-Haq regime during the heydays of the U.S.-armed and financed proxy war against Soviet infidels (Charlie did it, indeed). In other words, unlike in the past, American arms and currency can only go so far.

Alongside, the internecine struggle for power and purse between the newly emergent Punjabi petty bourgeois and the rest of the disunited ethnic minorities -- including the Sindhis, Baluchs and Pushtuns -- militates against the stability of the center, a situation that the Islamists, with the help of al-Qaida and the Taliban, are systematically taking advantage of.
This is the kind of ethnic and political cauldron into which only fools rush in while angels fear to tread. It is not without reason that even the customarily cavalier Bush administration kept a safe distance from Pakistan, involving itself only so far as to secure its interests vis-à-vis the war in Afghanistan, which, too, had limited strategic and tactical goals.

Whereas candidate Obama, in his bid to balance his visceral opposition to the Iraq war with a national security cause célèbre, has locked himself into taking on the Afpak crisis and has now come to own it all by himself. And this could prove to be his Achilles' heel, imperiling his ambitious and inescapable agenda at home and abroad.

It is not too late for him to change course -- hands off Pakistan, follow a containment policy in Afghanistan and secure the homeland. Tacitly, this amounts to not propping up the Pakistani establishment through any form of aid -- arms or developmental -- and letting it sink or sail by its own volition. A collapsed Pakistani state is better than a toxic state precariously perched. Only the likelihood of collapse will galvanize the democratic and modernizing forces within Pakistani society and culminate in a popular revolution.

On the flip side, by taking itself out as a political, economic and military factor in the existence of Pakistan, America will probably help Pakistanis to have an objective national debate about the identity, direction and destiny of their country. Thanks to American influence on the one hand and the avowed threat of India on the other, Pakistan never really had a chance to introspect.

Meanwhile, the most effective policy President Obama could pursue would be to insulate the U.S. and its democratic allies from the likely fallouts of a collapsed Pakistan, including the possibility of Islamists laying their hands on nuclear weapons. In other words, his approach has to be the exact reverse of President Bush's -- making the homeland secure so that "they" can't follow us home.

This would involve, among a multitude of things, making American and European visa regimes stricter to prevent dangerous Pakistani elements from slipping in; forging alliances with Afpak neighbors, particularly Iran and China, to physically, politically and militarily isolate Pakistan and developing technologies to neutralize any nuclear threat emanating from there.

Pakistan is an unconventional problem that demands an unorthodox response from an unassuming president.