Dialogue of the deaf?

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Dealing with Pakistan

 

 

 

Virtually in the last year of his second term, Barack Obama, for all practical purposes, is now a lame duck US president. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will meet him later this month in Washington with a wish list of his own. The US administration, on the other hand, is also very clear about what it expects from Islamabad.

Washington wants the Pakistani military establishment to rein in militant groups (primarily the Haqqani network) based in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The Afghan regime blames Pakistani intelligence agency ISI for fomenting trouble inside Afghanistan. It even alleges, albeit without concrete evidence, that Pakistani backed and equipped Taliban forces were involved in the recent invasion of the northern province of Kunduz.

It is another matter however that the US has a lot of egg on its face for bombing a hospital in Kunduz run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) killing 22 doctors and patients. President Obama, after initial dithering, has admitted to the grave error committed by the US forces and has duly apologised. But the incident has further damaged the already tarnished American reputation in the region.

The nuclear deal with Iran ending decades of sanctions ridden relations with Tehran is certainly a feather in the US president’s cap. Perhaps restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba is another notable achievement. But barring these, the Obama administration has not earned many brownie points on the foreign policy front.

The biggest mess that President Obama will be leaving behind is the Middle East. Although not entirely his doing, his administration’s Syria policy is the latest amongst the string of US-led debacles in the region.

In its anxiety to get rid of the autocratic Bashar al-Assad regime, ostensibly in the name of protecting human rights and promoting democracy, America has created a bigger monster in the form of al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant).

The nuclear deal with Iran ending decades of sanctions ridden relations with Tehran is certainly a feather in the US president’s cap. Perhaps restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba is another notable achievement

The US has to eat crow by being forced tolerate the Assad regime; being the lesser evil as compared to the Islamist threat. But Washington is compounding its grave strategic errors in the region by ostensibly being upset on Vladimir Putin’s decisive move to use Russian air power to bomb the Syrian opposition.

Although President Obama at his speech at the UN conceded that there has to be “a managed transition” to a new Syrian leader, but the lady doth protest too much. Asking Putin for help — and also having to publicly admit it — was perhaps one of the worst moments of Obama’s presidency.

It has been alleged by his detractors in the West that the Russian strongman was targeting the so-called pro-Western (largely Sunni) opposition to the Assad regime rather than the Islamists. It is another matter however that American efforts to prop up Syrian “moderate” rebels have been largely futile. According to some independent reports, after spending a whopping $500m to train anti Assad rebels the West could only train “four or five” rebels to take on the jihadists.

Thanks to the short-sighted and ham-handed Western policies spearheaded by Washington, the Middle East is an irretrievable mess. The Syrian debacle alone has left at least 250,000 dead apart from the largest post World War II refugee crisis involving at least four million displaced persons.

In the early 70s, the renowned Marxist writer Fred Halliday, moved by the revolutionary and nationalist forces in the Middle East, penned his tome ‘Arabia without Sultans’. Despite the Arab anti-monarchy nationalist movements of that era, the kingdoms and sheikhdoms not only survived but have also thrived owing to their enormous oil wealth and unbridled US support.

Thanks to the myopic policies pursued by Washington post 9/11 in the Islamic world, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have especially been left in a bigger mess. Washington is forced to prop up these regimes for its long-term strategic interests.

In the name of regime change quislings have replaced despots like Saddam and Qaddafi. As a result the region has become a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Al Qaeda has morphed into a hydra headed monster spreading its tentacles not only in Pakistan but also in the Middle East and parts of Africa.

But now al Qaeda seems like a tea party as compared to ISIL, which controls vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps with the likes of Saddam and Qaddafi in charge, the West was better off. With the US drawdown virtually complete Afghanistan is a veritable hole right in Pakistan’s backyard.

It is a stark reality of power politics in the Islamic Republic that no politician in power worth his salt has been in a position to take a unilateral decision on the nuclear programme or on national security issues

With the so-called despots now dead and gone who knew their people better, half-baked solutions being foisted on the hapless people of Iraq, Syria and Libya by the West have simply not worked.

In this context Prime Minister Sharif will be negotiating with an administration preoccupied with the Syrian crisis. Renowned Washington Post journalist David Ignatius has revealed that a Pak-US civil nuclear deal, similar to the one struck with India in 2005, will be on the cards during the Pakistani leader’s visit to Washington later in the month.

The US concerns about Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal, although discreetly expressed, are well known. The Indians are, however, overtly worried about Islamabad’s advanced technical prowess in developing tactical nuclear warheads.

Pakistan, in the wake of New Delhi’s sabre rattling on the jingoistic BJP government’s watch, has no option but to keep its powder dry. This makes South Asia a likely theatre for a nuclear showdown. Not a very encouraging prospect for Washington.

Islamabad maintains that its nuclear programme is entirely of a defensive nature, to serve as a deterrent to possible Indian aggression. But in Washington its nuclear assets are increasingly viewed as more than merely being a deterrent or of a defensive nature.

It is unlikely that the US administration will be able to strike a civilian nuclear deal with Sharif at this stage. In any case the Pakistani prime minister is considerably weakened at home to strike a deal without the military’s nod.

According to some reports COAS General Raheel Sharif is also due to visit Washington post-Nawaz Sharif’s visit. If that is so, ironically, substantive talks on a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan will be held in the US capital with the military chief later.

It is a stark reality of power politics in the Islamic Republic that no politician in power worth his salt has been in a position to take a unilateral decision on the nuclear programme or on national security issues.

Perhaps this has always been the norm. Interestingly, both Sharif and Obama are lame ducks now in their own respective ways. A case of dialogue of the deaf?