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May. 7 2009 - 10:28 am | 2 views | 3 recommendations | 0 comments

What Obama’s Getting Wrong in Pakistan

Is the White House right to support the Pakistani army’s fight against militias on the Afghan border? Or should President Obama encourage fewer helicopter gunships, and more cops and lawyers?

With machine-gun-toting militias pushing out from a base in Swat, where a peace deal collapsed this week, it’s easy to say the government had to call in the troops. The local analysts aren’t so sure. Pakistan isn’t Afghanistan. “You have to think in terms of a state that isn’t quite at the level of Afghanistan yet,” said Samina Ahmed, who covers South Asia for the International Crisis Group, from Islamabad. “We’re talking about a place that does have a police, that does have a court system, that does have state control, that does have people who believe in democratic norms functioning.” Ahmed argued that civil society institutions were being overlooked in favor of military options.

“Remember that, this is not a local population that gives credence to the militants.” Last year, Swat’s 650,000 residents voted overwhelmingly for secular leadership. Then President Asif Ali Zardari struck a peace deal with a confederation of extremist groups, converting the local court system to a theocratic system, over the wishes of the local population. The peace deal collapsed earlier this week after Swat Taliban troops pushed into neighboring regions.

“Yes absolutely you do need military force, but in the sense of law enforcement,” she said. “This is not a military built for counter-insurgency. They are using helicopter gunships…The military, as they always do, blundered in.” The Pakistani military, though large, is armed to fight a long-running conflict with India. “That’s not the way you do counter-insurgency, with indescriminate violence.”

In the English-speaking press, at least, the government counter-attack has wide approval. And the Obama administration, in the form of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, indicated a view of Pakistan that runs, firstly, through its war-fighting institutions.

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Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones, made some vague references to other than military options, in a White House press conference yesterday, in a description of Obama’s meeting with Zardari:

With President Zardari, the President started out by declaring that he wanted to be of help to the people of Pakistan not just in a military way, but to help Pakistan with a new beginning; to again help the government institutionalize democracy and make progress, recognizing that these are difficult times, and the threat of extremists to Pakistan requires a concerted action.

But that’s not what’s happening on the ground today. The past four days have seen air attacks from advanced fighter planes, artillery assaults, and helicopters firing onto an estimated 600 Taliban fighters in at least one region, internally displacing half a million civilians now on the move toward Peshawar and elsewhere, fleeing the fighting, according to a Red Cross report cited this morning in London’s Guardian.

Pakistan’s northern groups are largely Pashtun ethnically, and their agenda appears to be mostly local — seeking theocracy in the northwestern territories they populate. Violent extremist groups in the country’s south have Punjabi roots, and are more closely allied to groups with international agendas, said Ahmed.

But the conversation is getting broader, not more narrowly focused. This week’s meetings between Zardari, Obama, and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai comes after months, years of debate over “AfPak” solutions — Afghanistan/Pakistan, in State Department speak — and Jones, the Obama National Security Advisor, spoke repeatedly of treating the issue as a “regional” problem.

Which it is, Ahmed, in Islamabad, 70 miles front the front, grants. But she says that viewing Pakistan’s awful week as a military situation obscures that Pakistan is undergoing a democratization process, very different from Afghanistan’s, which can’t yet guarantee even basic government services, much less political solutions (like parties).

What it does have is an institution boasting a longtime role as the US’s preferred diplomatic conduit in the region: Pakistan’s military.

“What you have, unfortunately, just as you have a security crisis, you also have a democratic transition, and it hasn’t reached the military yet,” argued Ahmed. “After 9-11, the [Pakistani] military gained control of counter-terrorism and is not going to give up that, and all of the resources that come with that so easily.” Pakistan is fighting the Taliban, but at the same time, also fighting the ghost of Musharraf — a general who took power in a coup before being ousted by calls for elections last year. “These ghosts don’t lie easily, and we do have a problem on our hands. Unfortunately international actors put all the eggs in the military’s basket,” she said.


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    I am a reporter who has concentrated on foreign affairs, living for awhile throughout Latin America; in Jakarta, Indonesia; and now in Barcelona. My articles have appeared in The Denver Quarterly, Harper's, GQ, Men's Journal, The Believer and GlobalPost.com. I am the author of a book, Searching for El Dorado, which is about South American gold miners. One of the things I am very interested in is how journalism and other writing first published in languages other than English gets ignored in much of the world, even when it concerns important events. You'll be seeing a lot of work here based on non-English and non-mainstream sources, by journalists I've had the good fortune to work with abroad, and by others I'm just meeting through this project. Thanks for reading and participating. Welcome.

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