With Obama at the World's "Most Dangerous Place"
Akbar Ahmed, Huffington Post, March 28, 2009
Seated a few yards in front of President Obama as his invited guest at the White House on Friday, March 27, I heard him describe the areas I had been in charge of--including Waziristan--as "the most dangerous place in the world."
Obama was laying out what I suspect will become the signature foreign policy effort of his presidency. He had shifted the American focus of the last eight years from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ultimately he will be judged by the success or failure of the objectives he laid out in his speech.
As if to confirm the sentiment of Obama's speech, at the same time as he delivered it, a suicide bomber in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan blew himself up and seventy other people in a mosque at Friday prayer. Around the same time, an Afghan soldier, trained by Americans, turned his gun on two American soldiers killing them and then shot himself. The stakes, therefore, could not be higher.
Obama laid out a persuasive argument--something that I had been doing for several years--that in order to stabilize Afghanistan, its neighbor Pakistan had to be stabilized. Obama's political insight was that Pakistan could not be stabilized without first calming and controlling the border areas that lie between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama rightly made a distinction between al-Qaeda who would be challenged and defeated and the general Taliban who were to be treated differently. There were those Taliban who could be talked to and eventually brought in, and those who were not redeemable.
Afghanistan will receive the attention it deserves but could not get because of the war in Iraq, and Pakistan will no longer be neglected. For Pakistan Obama committed $1.5 billion in aid annually for the next five years. While applauding Obama's generosity, I would urge him to ensure that the rulers of Afghanistan and Pakistan account for the $16-17 billion in American aid already given since 9/11 before providing more funds for their Swiss bank accounts.
As a Pakistani, it was a pleasure to hear an American president speak with such respect of the people of Pakistan. Obama talked of the suffering of the Pakistanis at the hand of the terrorists after 9/11. He even mentioned the large numbers of Pakistani soldiers killed in action along Pakistan's international border while attempting to bring law and order.
I was equally impressed--as I am sure most Pakistanis were--that he was the first American president I have heard pronounce the name of the country correctly. It is difficult for the people of that country to take American commentators too seriously when they pronounce Iran as "I-ran", Iraq as "I-rack", or Qatar as "gutter."
But, eloquence and diction will not get Obama very far in the rugged terrain that he has rightly called lethally dangerous for America and the world. If he fails to control the tribal areas, Obama will find his policy unraveling and the fears of American commentators that this may very well become "Obama's Vietnam" may prove correct.
So as someone who was directly in charge of three divisions in Baluchistan and several of the Tribal Areas in theFrontier Province, let me offer my suggestions based on my experiences.
My first suggestion is that Obama stop the drone strikes. At the moment, the issue of the drone strikes in the Tribal Areas is a highly sensitive and inflammatory one. While some "bad guys" may be killed in the strikes, there is little doubt that too many "good guys" are lost in the process--and many of them are women and children. This causes widespread outrage and fuels the anti-Americanism which is already rampant.
There is talk of opening up a new chapter by ordering drone strikes in Baluchistan. Not a good idea. The colonial British assiduously prevented the Baluch tribe of Baluchistan and Pashtun tribes of Southern Afghanistan and Pakistani agencies like North and South Waziristan from ever teaming up against them. I can predict that with the first drone strike in Baluchistan, America will ensure that this occurrs. As a result, the Taliban will gain new supporters and vast strategic depth.
And for those who may still have a cocky arrogance about dealing with these "tribal people," I would suggest they take a look at the map and confront the reality that the Baluch share hundreds of miles of border with Iran which will undoubtedly provide covert aid to put further pressure on its American adversaries.
Secondly, Obama must encourage the Pakistani government to stabilize law and order at the district level, the basic unit of administration. This can be done by revamping the civilian administrative structure in the tribal areas and districts of Pakistan. The vast majority of Pakistanis are fed up with the anarchy in their country and want to focus their lives on food, employment, and education for their families. Above all, they want law and order, which the district administration once provided. The district structure has been marginalized to the point of irrelevance over the last decade, and in its vacuum feudal lords, corrupt policemen and army soldiers play havoc with ordinary Pakistanis. An independent, honest, and competent civil administration, backed by an independent judiciary, would provide immediate relief and justice at the district level. In the Tribal Areas, the office of the political agent, along with the structure of tribal administration should be revived and strengthened, and the army used in aid of civil power and not to thwart it. It has been clearly shown that the army cannot deal effectively with the tribes.
Thirdly, in the tribal areas the council of elders, the jirgas that act as a tribal body providing justice and stability and the religious scholars advocating calm and stability should be strengthened. Some of these have become particular targets of the Taliban. But they are an effective inbuilt structural check to the Taliban.
Fourthly, the madrassas which form a vast, complex network of potential recruiting arenas for the Taliban need to be vigorously reformed. With the kind of money Pakistanis are receiving they should also be told that a large percentage should go to this reformation providing new syllabi, teachers training programs, and up to date equipment. This action will go a long way toward securing the next generation of Pakistanis.
Finally, follow up on the sensitivity shown by Obama in his approach to the Pakistani people and emphasize friendship and honor. I would suggest less bluster and more diplomacy on the part of those who are being sent out as part of Obama's efforts in the field.
Back at the White House, as I sat sensing the charisma of Obama and the eloquence of his words, I could not help but feel that I was seated in the front row watching history unfold.
I wondered whether he or those whose task it was to implement the President's vision were fully aware of the enormity of the challenge, as indeed I was.