Friday, October 26, 2012

Daily Times Editorial Oct 25, 2012

The debate and Pakistan What came through as an unmistakable message from the final debate between the US presidential hopefuls, incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, was their convergence of views on Pakistan. Obama underlined his conviction that unlike what Romney had held when he was a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, if he had followed Romney’s advice and asked Pakistan for permission to go in after Osama bin Laden, the latter would likely have escaped. Romney in response could not but endorse the raid, given the level of satisfaction amongst the American electorate on the taking out of the architect of 9/11. Romney not only said he too would have ordered the raid, he also supported Obama’s drones policy. Where he differed from Obama however, was in stating in line with a bipartisan US Congressional opinion that aid to Pakistan should be conditional to Islamabad’s performance against certain benchmarks in the war on terror. In essence though, Romney embraced Obama’s position on Pakistan and did not blame him for the troubled ties with the US’s ostensible ally. Romney went on to express concerns about the safe havens enjoyed by the Haqqani network on Pakistani soil, especially since it is this group Washington holds primarily responsible for some if not all of the spectacular attacks against the US/NATO forces, including the attack in Kabul on the NATO headquarters. He also opined that the ISI was a very powerful institution and the civilian elected government was not calling the shots in Pakistan. When asked if he thought it was time to “divorce” Pakistan, Romney replied in the negative, arguing that a country with around 100 nuclear weapons and building perhaps double that number, with terrorists on its soil, could not be ignored or isolated. On Afghanistan, Romney felt the solution to that country’s woes could not be seen in isolation from Pakistan. What happens in Afghanistan after the troops withdrawal by 2014 was critically dependent on what happened inside Pakistan was his contention. He argued that continued engagement with Pakistan was essential for all these reasons, albeit his strictures on conditional aid may not sit well with a Pakistani audience. Although on the evidence of the final debate before the US presidential elections, little appears to separate the two contenders vis-à-vis their policy towards Pakistan, Romney’s stance is being interpreted by observers as in line with past Republican administrations, whom the track record seems to indicate tended to ‘tilt’ towards Islamabad. However, too much should not be read into campaign pronouncements, let alone televised debates aimed at convincing the American electorate of the credentials of the respective candidates. It is well known that Romney’s Republican Party is chock-a-block with neocons and those agreeing with, or at least influenced by, the fulminations of the Tea Party. What that may translate into if Romney does manage to win the elections, which is far from a settled matter, given the surprising closeness of the race according to public opinion polls, is a far right orientation that will probably be reinforced by his foreign policy and military advisers. It is advisable therefore to refrain from rooting for Romney just yet in Pakistan. The undeniable and irreducible fact remains that US foreign policy often enjoys bipartisan consensus cutting across party lines, particularly given the perception in the US amongst the public and media that Pakistan is not just a difficult ally, it has worked against US interests in Afghanistan while cloaking its dual policy behind a screen of being Washington’s partner in the war on terror. If it has, Pakistan has at best been a ‘selective’ ally of Washington, joining hands with the latter where its own interests were concerned, diverging where US interests did not entirely conform to Islamabad’s. This truth seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future whoever wins in the US in November, despite the cost Pakistan’s policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds as far as the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda are concerned.

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