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Dealing with the mess in Af-Pak, especially Pakistani perfidy, will be quite a challenge for a re-elected Obama.
Barack Obama, we are told, had a quiet first day. He has a lot on his mind, not least how he will bring together a sharply divided polity. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a "clear and present danger" to America could work that particular miracle. The threat of the "fiscal cliff", maybe? Iran's nuclear ambitions or even Syria's civil war? Lets look further eastwards.
Obama is bringing his men back unceremoniously from a war gone bad in Afghanistan. Shorn of diplomatic jargon, it's a defeat for the US at the hands of a lethal cocktail of extremism, terrorism and nationalism. And also by Pakistan. Pakistan's jihad machine, armed and dangerous, and fully supported by the military-intelligence complex that runs the country, will pat themselves for having succeeded in their objective. Foreign troops will be out of Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban (the so-called 'good' Taliban) will be the pre-eminent force and Pakistan would have regained the strategic depth it had lost in the past decade. There is of course the minor matter of new Taliban groups threatening the Pakistani state, and Shias, Ahmadiyyas, women, etc also being killed for merely being who they are.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has been cranking out more nuclear weapons than any other country on earth, and the US is powerless to stop it from doing so, even through an FMCT. To add to it, Pakistan has miniaturised its nuclear weapons, so now they are not only small, but mobile. And hey, if one of them gets "truck-jacked" as they are being driven to the Indian border, we won't even know. And did we forget to mention that all this happens even as Pakistan gets unconscionable sums of aid from the US? No wonder a Pakistani TV "expert" this week declared that America should "behave" otherwise transit routes into Afghanistan could be cut off again.
Maybe, just maybe, Obama has seen through this fog. So yes, there will be a withdrawal in 2014. But as Bruce Riedel, who wrote Obama's first Af-Pak review says, "The President will transition US and NATO forces on schedule in Afghanistan leaving behind a residual force large enough to contain the Taliban and protect drone bases flying counter terrorism missions in Pakistan."
The drones into Pakistan will continue, because in their absence the world has no way of getting the Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders since they have virtually been integrated into Pakistani tribal society, or they hide in plain sight in urban centres like Karachi, but most of all they remain under the protection of Pakistan's official agencies. The Pakistanis will continue to rant about the debilitating effect of the drones, but further attacks are unlikely to stop.
What might be diluted, however, is US aid and, much more important for all concerned, US attention. There are many in Washington, some in the US Congress as well, who are arguing for an overhaul of America's Pakistan policy, taking a more hardline stand on issues like visa restrictions and anti-terror moves. That's unlikely to happen, because certainly until 2014, the US needs Pakistan a lot more. But post that date, things could begin to look very different for Pakistan.
Stephen Tankel, author of a definitive study of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, said, "Post-2014 a lot depends on Afghanistan, but counter-terrorism and counterproliferation will remain high on the agenda. Of course, people inside the beltway will probably begin paying less attention to Pakistan overall. This could be a good thing. Barring a civil war in Afghanistan, the post-2014 period could allow the US and Pakistan to get some distance from each other, while still maintaining a relationship. This would be more of an arms-length relationship that acknowledges the strategic divergence of the two countries. "
Obama probably knows better than to get America involved in another costly war in a Muslim country. Therefore, his instinct would be to find a way to directly negotiate with Iran. Similarly, Obama is unlikely to get into a face-to-face mess with Pakistan, but he is likely to keep the pressure with a robust counter-terrorism policy against Pakistan in the foreseeable future.
This could be an opportunity for India to normalise its relations with Pakistan. But more important, this could be an opportunity for Pakistan itself to think about what kind of a nation it wants to be going forward.
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