Why, what and who to talk to

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Deciphering Obama’s UN speech and its Pakistani context

President Obama delivered an overarching speech at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly session last Monday. The focus of the speech and the session at large remained on Iran and Syria, as was expected. However, Obama also laid out the broad contours for the future of American foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa, for which he had been criticized earlier. Ironically, his UN speech sounded more like the State of the Union address, with one segment focused on addressing the war weary American audiences, and the other part on the international concerns regarding American unilateralism and exceptionalism.

The speech hinted towards the emerging American posture, including in areas where the US and Pakistan have disagreed. One of them is obviously the interrelated factor of drone attacks and state sovereignty, the other element being how to deal with Al Qaeda affiliates and the role of UN.

Countering Putin’s article in The New York Times published earlier, Obama stated America is indeed exceptional, and it will act when there are justifiable moral and greater reasons to do so.

“The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region,” he asserted.

He went on to spell out the core American interests at stake in the Middle East: the free flow of energy, focus on dismantling the terrorist networks, building the capacity of its partners to fight the extremists and preventing the development and use of weapons of mass destruction.

Obama cited the Church massacre in Peshawar and the recent attack carried out by Al Shabab in Kenya, to demonstrate how Al Qaeda core has diminished but many splinter affiliates have emerged which continue to pose a threat to the US and its allies. He added how drone has proved to be the best weapon against terrorists that are exploiting state sovereignty. “But sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter,” Obama stated.

At the same time, he clarified how US has addressed the international concerns regarding the widespread use of drones: “we have limited the use of drones so they target only those who pose a continuing, imminent threat to the United States where capture is not feasible, and there is a near certainty of no civilian casualties.”

It is this point that has persisted against the argument Pakistan has presented, claiming the strikes to be against the international law. This difference will likely remain a sticking point now that Pakistan is contemplating on negotiating with the TTP.

With who to negotiate, why, and what, has remained a convoluted dilemma, along with the appropriateness of when to use and cease applying force. Pakistan has quoted the example of the US negotiating with the Afghan Taliban as an example of why it should talk with the TTP. Another reason most cited is that force alone cannot work and ultimately talks will be required. However, others have made the case that the Afghan Taliban and the TTP are not comparable – the former is fighting against foreign occupation while in Pakistan there is no such cause.

On the other hand, the TTP has over the years presented a number of reasons for why it carries out attacks. One of them being they did not want Pakistan to support and supply the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The second, they have wanted to impose an Islamic system in Pakistan. Thirdly, they are reacting to the drone strikes targeting them. Since Pakistan does not obstruct the drone attacks, it believes the state is complicit.

The formula the US has evolved on which extremist groups to negotiate with depend on its affiliation with Al Qaeda. If a group starts to distance itself from Al Qaeda, the US has been more apt to negotiating, as the Afghan Taliban has shown in their recent statements. Although the talking appears to be at a preliminary stage and much still remains to be seen on how the negotiated solution evolves.

The dramatic US-Iran thaw is now a new factor and how it would impact Afghanistan reconciliation will be closely watched.

In the case of TTP and other jihadist groups operating in Pakistan, they are widely believed to have ties with Al Qaeda. The example of LeT linked Mumbai attack and the TTP connected suicide bombing at the US base in Khost in 2009, are cases in point. So the challenge of talking to the TTP is not as simple and it carries international repercussions.

These were apparent when Manmohan Singh met President Obama on Saturday and when he stated at the UN that Pakistan is still the epicentre of terrorism. While Pakistan seems to have delinked the TTP from India oriented jihadist groups, the Afghan Taliban, and Al Qaeda, others do not perceive this to be the case. Moreover, the TTP is on the roll and has made no renouncements of the sorts Afghan Taliban are at least gesturing at.

The success of negotiations is also far from ensured at this point. One of the reasons for this is that the extremist groups in the Af-Pak context, and Syria, may indeed have the upper hand. And in the absence of a clear winner or loser, talks become even more complex.

To deal with this challenge in the future, in the new strategy the role of allies like Pakistan, and perhaps Iran, including Saudi Arabia, will be key to reigning in the various brands of extremists. Meanwhile, the US will withdraw to the background, while upgrading the capabilities of its partners to take on the charge against the irreconcilables.

President Obama challenged the UN on how it could rise to the occasion and deal with the emerging threats it was not designed to deal with – emanating from within states and where the state is too ‘fragile or failing’ to deal with them. It appears Pakistan’s war on terror, and that of the US, is far from over.

The writer is chief analyst at PoliTact, a Washington based futurist advisory firm (www.PoliTact.com and Twitter: @politact) and can be reached at: [email protected]