Obama's reputation depends on his Af-Pak policy
It is hard to say which meeting is more important: Obama’s meeting with the president of Afghanistan or with the president of Pakistan.
For it is becoming increasingly clear that Obama’s foreign policy reputation – indeed his presidency – will depend upon success in what US officials call the “Af-Pak” region, in much the same way that Iraq was central to the legacy of President Bush.
President Zardari of Pakistan was briefing congressmen yesterday and, interestingly, has been in the US secretly since last week. He is campaigning to convince Washington that he is worth $7.5bn in non-military assistance over the next five years.
Congressmen who met him yesterday complained that they were “disappointed” and “confused”, detecting precious little urgency in Zardari’s fight with the Taliban, even though the militants almost certainly killed his wife.
The current offensive gearing up against the Taliban in the Swat valley may well be Zardari’s way of saying he deserves America’s money. But nobody knows how long the Pakistan army is prepared to fight its own people. It fought the Taliban in Swat for two years, before suing for peace earlier this year.
Still, what choice do the Americans have? They’ve already given Islamabad over $10bn in economic and military aid since September 11th 2001, and yet more money seems bound to flow soon.
Last year US funding largely dried up, with Washington apparently happier to fund a military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, than Zardari’s new and democratically elected government. Pakistan believes it is owed $1.5bn for fighting the Taliban, and congress is poised to open the purse strings once again.
The first down payment may be $1bn in aid, focused on relief for those displaced from the fighting, to help Islamabad win over hearts and minds.
A new military training programme could also be announced, based in Kuwait, so Pakistan doesn’t have to host American forces on its soil. There may be more support for the Frontier Corps, local Pakistani paramilitaries currently fighting in the province of Buner. And Obama could extend a secret $100m programme, begun by Bush, to help Pakistan defend its 60 to 100 nuclear missiles.
In exchange, Zardari will be pressed to move more Pakistani forces away from the Indian border and into Taliban hotspots. For there seems little chance Zardari will allow American forces to cross the 1600-mile Afghan border themselves – which makes Zardari’s meeting with Hamid Karzai to discuss border security all the more important.
As for Hamid Karzai, the Americans reckon he will win another five-year term in August, but they want to see him tackle Afghan corruption and extend his leadership in ways he hasn’t so far.
Of particular concern is Karzai’s brother, the head of the regional council in Kandahar, who has long been accused of involvement in the drugs trade. Though if US officials do what they say they will do – bypass Karzai and fund more money to regional governors directly – they could weaken him even further.
Tackling the poppy business will be central. Over 20 000 US troops head into southern Afghanistan this summer and they want to know that Karzai is on their side, as they attempt to destroy the opium trade which funds the Taliban.
Obama’s being warned by Capitol Hill that his policy will fail if these insurgents simply slip across into Pakistan at will. And that America is being further sucked into something it cannot get out of.
The American plan is to fund Afghan villages along the frontier to stop the Taliban retreating. But there’s every chance that these villages take America’s money – and carry on helping the Taliban anyway.
And if the US cannot control these villages, it will resort to the kind of aerial bombardment which has killed scores of Afghan civilians this week – which then boosts Taliban support and makes the holding of territory an impossible task.