The euphoria is dying somewhat quickly in certain parts of our neighbourhood. The photogenic 44th president of America already managed to ruffle feathers in Islamabad, where officials were not too happy at being pulled up by Barack Obama on his first day in office.
Deliver first on the ‘war against tyerror’, and then get more non-military aid, was the clear message from Washington. Not only are there no free lunches, but one has to wash the dishes too, it would appear. Pakistan immediately retaliated by saying it would “review options” about continuing support to the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, if the Obama administration did not adopt a “positive” attitude. This is perhaps a thinly veiled threat to stop cooperation with the US, but Islamabad can ill-afford to do so in light of, among other things, the US proposal to triple non-military aid to Pakistan in the near future. The legislation, scripted by new Vice-President Joseph Biden, authorises USD 7.5 billion as aid for Pakistan in the next five years, for health and infrastructure; simultaneously, it tightens the screws on reciprocal collaboration. And Islamabad’s reluctance – or more likely, inability – to stamp out militancy within its borders will be read as collaboration with the very forces that the ‘war on terror’ seeks to crush.
New Delhi has reason to be pleased with this rap on the knuckles so quickly delivered to Islamabad, as well as with the description of Afghanistan and Pakistan as the ‘central front’ in the ‘war on terror’. But it is doubtless wondering if it has already missed the bus, as the Obama-Biden foreign policy “agenda document” does not mention India as one of America’s major allies. “Obama and Biden will forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements, such as the six-party talks on North Korea,” says the agenda document. “They will maintain strong ties with allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia; work to build an infrastructure with countries in East Asia that can promote stability and prosperity; and work to ensure that China plays by international rules.” The lack of attention to the Big Brother of Southasia is, however, not necessarily a sign that the US wishes to evolve independent foreign-policy initiatives toward the ‘smaller’ nation states of Southasia.
Of course, the swift move, on his first day in office, to suspend military tribunals for 120 days, as a first step to closing down the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention centre, will be welcomed across the Muslim world. But for governments in the region that were optimistic of the post-George W Bush era, anxiously waiting to see the much-mentioned change, Obama’s post-election utterances and actions on Afghanistan/Pakistan might not have been entirely soothing. This inevitably made analysts refer back to Obama’s speeches during the last year of campaigning, where he came across as a hawk on Southasian (especially Pakistan-Afghanistan) affairs, in an attempt to justify the proposed pullback from Iraq.
End this war
The election promise of a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq – one of the most unpopular wars that America has ever fought – means redeploying them in one of the two hotspots identified by Team Obama, which promises to “dedicate more resources to the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan”. Removing all troops from Iraq by the summer of 2010, (except for a ‘residual force’ to deal with Osama bin Laden, in case he pops up there) would most likely see them redeployed to Afghanistan – a region where growing militarisation is having more and more alarming consequences for civilians. While President Obama has promised to launch “aggressive diplomacy” to bring stability to Iraq, it appears that only a military ‘solution’ is on the cards for Afghanistan/Pakistan. The proposed Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA), to extend legal protections and immunities, can only spell more misery for civilian populations in regions where American troops operate.
In a significant move immediately after his inauguration, President Obama announced the appointment of two special envoys to the ‘hotspots’ of Afghanistan/Pakistan (Richard Holbrooke) and West Asia (George Mitchell), thus putting the ‘fight against terror’ high up on the agenda. Though credited with brokering peace in Bosnian war through the Dayton Peace Accord, Holbrooke faces an extremely tough challenge. Besides the nigh-impossible task of calming the simmering Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, he will surely be sucked into the swirl of regional geopolitics, which includes Kashmir, and the concerns of India as the regional superpower will have to be addressed. You can be sure that Holbrooke will be on a regular shuttle between Kabul and Islamabad, but he will not be missing New Delhi. Before long, he may be wishing to trade places with Mitchell.
While the promise of collectively pulling America out of its economic woes and battered image overseas might make citizens of the US hopeful, the optimism and jubilation surrounding President Obama’s historic and inspirational ascension to power might now be somewhat muted in Southasia.