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Three Sovereign Nations, One Common Enemy

Guyana Journal, May 2009
By Mohamed El-Khawas

President Barak Obama inherited an unfinished war in Afghanistan, the oldest battleground in the fight against terrorism. Upon coming to the White House, he was given a gloomy report by the U.S. military. Critical resources, including troops, had been taken away from Afghanistan to fight in Iraq. They were short of critical supplies and undermanned to wage a campaign to defeat al-Qaeda. The war had lingered on for years, without an end in sight, and al-Qaeda had come back strong. Its leaders and their ally, the Taliban, have found sanctuary in Pakistan's mountainous region along the Afghan border. They have the support of the Taliban of Pakistan, an armed Islamist movement designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Al-Qaeda has regrouped, rearmed, and renewed their guerrilla campaign against the coalition forces. The recent increase in cross-border attacks has shown al-Qaeda's resilience and has presented a serious challenge to the U.S. military.

President Obama has decisively reversed Bush's policy, shifting the U.S. focus away from Iraq to Afghanistan. He is winding down the Iraqi war and allocating more resources to Afghanistan. He has linked Pakistan with Afghanistan, with both countries forming the frontline in the fight against extremism. The problems in both countries require joint action, he argues. He appointed a seasoned diplomat, Richard C. Holbrooke, who had brokered the Dayton peace accords in the Balkans, as a special envoy to the two countries. His mission is to improve relations between governments, which do not trust each other, and to get them to cooperate in the fight against the Taliban, which is making inroads in both countries. Meanwhile, Obama will continue to take direct action against potential threats in Pakistan if its security forces do not act. So far, he has authorized missile strikes by unmanned drones against suspected terrorist hideouts inside Pakistan, in part to sustain military pressure on extremist groups. Although Pakistani officials have quietly approved U.S. strikes, they publicly criticize such attacks for domestic reasons. The air strikes often cause civilian casualties and anger many Pakistanis, adding more fuel to anti-Americanism. Obama has also pressured Islamabad to do more to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban who are moving freely across the border.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Europe and tried to convince NATO allies to send reinforcements. But many European governments are not willing to contribute more troops and equipment at a time of economic meltdown and severe financial crisis. They are even reluctant to change the rules of engagement and insist on limiting their operations to a single region rather than allowing flexibility to move troops around to wherever fighting is intensified. A new strategy was discussed at the NATO summit in April, in which the U.S. would send more troops to Afghanistan and the allies would provide logistics and other assistance. Despite his popularity among Europeans, Obama has been unable to convince their governments to do more to defeat and dismantle al-Qaeda. He has ordered the transfer of 12,000 U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and he plans to send an additional 18,000, bringing the total to 30,000 new troops. Furthermore, the President asked Congress for more money for Afghanistan and more aid to Pakistan "to fight extremism through increased development aid and military support."

Obama is alarmed by the turn of events in Pakistan. In January, the Pakistani government and the Taliban signed a cease-fire agreement in the strategically important Swat Valley. The U.S. opposed the truce and Secretary Clinton accused Pakistan of "abdicating" its authority to the Taliban. Like their predecessors, American officials argued that similar arrangements in the past were counterproductive because they were violated. They did not result in ousting foreign fighters or in stopping cross border infiltration. This time was no different. Although there were no attacks, the Taliban refused to disarm and began to spread its influence outside of the Swat Valley. It entered Buner district, 60 miles from the nation's capital. American officials worry that nuclear-armed Pakistan might not be able to turn back the armed extremists. This assessment is based on the fact that the army offensives twice have failed to defeat the insurgents in recent years. Concerned over Pakistan's stability, President Obama invited Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai to come to Washington. On May 6, they all met in the White House and discussed what needed to be done to combat the rising extremism in the area. Obama's message was clear and direct: "Along the border where insurgents often move freely, we must work together with a renewed sense of partnership to share intelligence, and to coordinate our efforts to isolate, target and take out our common enemy. But we must also meet the threat of extremism with a positive program of growth and opportunity." For these reasons, Obama requested $83 billion in supplemental war spending.

While Zardari was in Washington, the Pakistani military launched a full-scale offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley. Such a move brought praise by Clinton. As she put it, "I think that they are committed to this conflict being resolved and their being able to produce more peace and security." The offensive timing was intended to strengthen Zardari's hand in pressuring the U.S. for urgent military supplies to fight extremists. He has been asking for more Cobra attack helicopters, which are no longer in production. The Pentagon instead is rushing spare parts, ammunition and other equipment for its aging helicopter fleet. On the other hand, the U.S. has been unresponsive to his request for aerial drones to attack al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries. During their meeting, President Obama agreed that Pakistan "needs more aid."

The issue is whether Congress will go along and approve his request for billions of dollars for Pakistan. Some Representatives raise questions about the $15 billion that Pakistan had received over the past decade and the promises that went unfulfilled. With Democrats being the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, approval of the aid package is expected. However, benchmarks might be attached to ensure that the Pakistani government is delivering what it has promised to do. Another reason is that the U.S. is eager to stabilize Pakistan before the buildup of American forces and the beginning of the surge in Afghanistan. The U.S. military wants the Pakistani government to establish firm control on the Swat Valley to prevent a flux of insurgents from crossing the border to escape the surge. This is similar to what happened following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.

In the final analysis, Obama has no choice but to support the democratically elected governments in the two countries. Obama was careful not to endorse publicly either leader. Zardari is unpopular at home but the army's new offensive is supported by most political parties because of the harsh measures that the Taliban imposed in the territory under its control. The only exception is the large Jamaat-e-Islami religious party, which has taken to the streets to protest against "Pakistan's submission to an American war." The new offensive is "widely viewed as a show to please the United States and gain military aid and training."

In Washington, there is hardly any discussion about the human cost of the new offensives. Thousands of people are forced to stay in danger because there are not enough buses to transport them out of the Swat Valley. They are now trapped in the fighting between the army and the Taliban. Heavy civilian casualties are expected because of the military's air and ground attacks. About a half million people have already fled to safety. They left in a hurry, taking with them whatever they could carry and leaving most of their possessions behind. They are in dire need of international assistance because the Pakistani government has no resources to help these refugees. It is disheartening that there is no word from Washington about emergency humanitarian aid to help the Pakistani refugees. It seems that money could be found to wage wars but no funds are available to save lives.

Washington, D.C.
May 11, 2009

Dr. Mohamed El-Khawas is a professor in the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.


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