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Thursday, March 19, 2009

POLITICS: 'New US President Must Review Pakistan Policy'

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"Continuing drone attacks on our territory, which result in loss of precious lives and property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain [for] a democratically elected government. It is creating a credibility gap," Zardari told Gen. Petraeus, according to a statement issued by the President's office.

Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Kayani and Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar also reportedly raised similar objections in their meetings with Gen. Petraeus.

The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government came to power after general elections on Feb. 18, 2008, following almost a decade of military rule during which Washington dealt exclusively with the man at the helm of affairs, former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Eighty percent of the 10.8 billion US dollars that Washington sent to Pakistan since Sep. 11, 2001 went unconditionally to the military. But militancy, instead of decreasing, has increased, with Taliban elements taking refuge on the Pakistan side of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Lack of development and economic opportunities pushed local youth into the Taliban’s arms, says Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Ali, currently a World Fellow at Yale University.

Ali points to "economic desperation and a failure of both Pakistan’s government and the international community to provide viable alternatives" as major factors in the rise of militancy (‘Foreign Policy Challenges for the New US President’, Yale Global Online, Oct 31, 2008).

He also notes that the new civilian, PPP dispensation provides an opportunity to negotiate with the tribesmen to bring them into mainstream Pakistan. "That would allow judicial systems and political parties to function in the region, making it easier to build schools and offer jobs to compete with madrassahs (Islamic religious schools) and militias. Aside from providing alternative to the indoctrination, trade and interface with the rest of the world breaks the Taliban’s monopoly on ideas."

Instead, US airstrikes in the area since August have further alienated the local people.

The latest spate of attacks has claimed over 40 lives. On Oct. 29, the Pakistan government formally protested to the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, over an air strike on Oct. 26 that killed 15 people.

Two days later, as Gen. Petraeus assumed command as head of Centcom (Central Command) which covers the Middle East and Central Asia on Oct. 31, air strikes inside Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) killed at least 27 people.

The past two months have seen some 20 airstrikes and a ground incursion. Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani has denounced these operations as "acts of terrorism", but they have continued despite US officials’ assurances to the contrary.

"An Obama victory will not necessarily be to Pakistan’s advantage," columnist and member of the National Assembly, Ayaz Amir, told IPS. "The US appears to be shifting focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. If that happens, we will come under more pressure. And these airstrikes will only weaken the government and undermine its stand against terrorism." US strikes in Pakistan - and Syria, where seven civilians were killed during an Oct. 26 attack by US special forces - also blatantly flout international law, say analysts.

However, US officials "apparently have weighed the negative consequences of illegal military operations against their perceived benefits and opted in favor of the latter," commented Marcia Mitchell in the web publication Truthout (‘Who Watches While the US Invades - Again’, on Nov. 1) Such strikes appear likely to continue, going by media reports of the Bush administration’s carte blanche since July to the US military to unilaterally order attacks into alleged ‘terrorist havens’ without Presidential approval - or even knowledge.

However, Petraeus reportedly requires the approval of at least the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to attack targets inside Iran, presumably because Iran can strike back in the Western hemisphere.

"If this is correct, the Bush directive has far-reaching implications. It means that Petraeus has the power to order unprovoked acts of war against nations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, without even the knowledge of the incoming president, let alone a debate and vote in the US Congress," commented James Cogan in the World Socialialist Web Site (‘US carries out more airstrikes in Pakistan’, Nov. 3, 2008).

The attacks on Pakistan contrast with Washington’s pursuance of a "new strategy" in Afghanistan, as evidenced by Washington’s consultations with Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, who recently published a report analysing 648 terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006.

The report concludes that most terrorist groups ended not through military force but by joining the political process (Seth Jones and Martin C. Libicki, ‘How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida’, Rand Corp, 2008). Such a political compromise was most dramatically seen in the South Asian region recently when the Maoists in Nepal laid down their weapons and contested elections. Nepal is still on a rocky road, but surely it is better than the earlier civil war, say observers.

Pentagon and White House officials have acknowledged over the past month that the ‘war on terror’ cannot be won by military means alone.

US commander in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan endorsed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s overtures towards the Taliban, after Karzai revealed on Sep. 30 that he had been asking Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to intercede with the Taliban to begin dialogue.

Talking to journalists the following day, McKiernan said that starting such negotiations is a "political decision that will ultimately be made by the political leadership. Ultimately, the solution in Afghanistan is going to be a political solution, not a military one’’.

A few days later, his British counterpart in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, was reported saying: "If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this" (Christina Lamb, ‘War on Taliban cannot be won, says army chief’, The Sunday Times, London, Oct. 5).

The following day, UN special envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide told a news conference in Kabul, "We all know that we cannot win it militarily. It has to be won through political means. That means political engagement... If you want to have relevant results, you must speak to those who are relevant. If you want to have results that matter, you must speak to those who matter".

The ground was thus well-prepared for US defence secretary Robert Gates’ statement on Oct. 9, commenting that the US would be prepared to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan - the first such public declaration from Washington.

But this talk about dialogue and reconciliation in Afghanistan has not been extended to neighbouring Pakistan, where unmanned and armed US spy planes have been striking with alarming regularity over the past few months, killing and maiming dozens and forcing thousands of villagers to flee their homes.

Such deaths and displacement will only strengthen militancy in the area, by fuelling the tribal code of revenge, warn analysts.

This, combined with the region’s lack of development and economic desperation, makes it imperative for the incoming US President to re-evaluate the situation - and Washington’s policy on Pakistan.

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