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Obama’s Re-election and Pakistan

It is difficult to predict whether Barack Obama’s re-election as the president of the United States for a second term would have any implications for US policy towards Pakistan. As things stand, it would be unwise to expect much from the US in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. Pakistan needs to set its own house in order to deal with the United States on a more level playing field.

However, given the fact that the US administration is involved in an inconclusive war in Afghanistan, its policy towards Pakistan would be crucial in enabling it to extricate itself from this situation. For this reason, it would be likely that the new Obama administration may review this matter.

In order to examine what possible adjustments/alterations could take place in this regard, we would first need to look at the relationship between Pakistan and the United States in Obama’s first term as US president. Pakistan-US relations have registered a sharp down-slide in the last four years marked by mutual suspicion and acrimony. Obama’s first term in office reinforced the belief in Pakistan that America sees its bilateral relationship with Pakistan as transactional, and that the relationship with Pakistan is seen in Washington through the prism of the Afghan war.

Marked by ugly incidents in the last two years such as manifold increase in drone attacks over Pakistan’s borderland area Fata, the Raymond Davis affair, the unilateral raid deep inside Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and the outrageous attack by Nato on Pakistani troops in Salala in November 2011, the bilateral relationship was badly frayed.

At the strategic plane, the strengthening of US ‘India strategic partnership, a process initiated by the administration of President Bush, is seen by many in Pakistan as detrimental to Pakistan’s interests. Support of India’s entry in the influential Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) by the Obama administration caused even greater misgivings in Pakistan. In addition, it is generally perceived that Pakistan and the US have divergent interests with regard to Afghanistan.

When Obama takes oath for a second term in January 2013, he may start with a new team. There is talk of a new secretary of state (Susan Rice, now at the UN, to replace Hillary Clinton, a new secretary of defence (John Kerry to replace Leon Panetta), and a new military leadership at CENTCOM as well as in Afghanistan. This new team is likely to review a whole set of policy matters. In this context, it is certain that US policy towards Pakistan will be re-examined. The team may well take account of the fact that the hitherto hardline in dealings with Pakistan is alienating Pakistan and may prove counter-productive to US objectives in the end game in Afghanistan. Since the major irritant in Pakistan-US relations happens to be the occurrence of drone strikes on Pakistani soil, it is possible that the resort to drones is suspended for some time. However, it should be kept in mind that the United States is a country in which foreign policy is embedded in the institutions of the state. Due to this strong institutionalism, the broader contours of foreign policy objectives seldom change. It is only the style or means that can be modified as per the requirement.

Thus, while it is important to look at the personalities involved in the decision making, the institutional framework is often a major constraint for these policy makers. In post-elections US political make-up in both the houses and decision making levels, it seems difficult that President Obama will be able to bring a substantive change in its relationship with Pakistan.

At the strategic level, US ‘India strategic partnership will continue to thrive, despite its own difficulties and Pakistan’s concern, as US sees its relations with India through the prism of containing China. United States refocus towards Asia and Pacific has placed New Delhi in a strategic position such that it will have a much bigger say in laying out the discourse for South Asia. Resultantly, concerns within Pakistan will increase.

 Obama’s first term in office reinforced the belief in Pakistan that America sees its bilateral relationship with Pakistan as transactional, and that the relationship with Pakistan is seen in Washington through the prism of the Afghan war.
  Secondly, with regard to Afghanistan, the US is unlikely to create conditions on the ground which will end the war decisively in its favour. Back channel negotiations between Taliban-led factions and the United States remain murky and uncertain at best, despite recent positive movements. This uncertainty means the continuation of drone attacks over Pakistani borderland and pressure to do more against alleged safe havens in Fata areas.

US economic assistance to Pakistan has also not been forthcoming in the last two years as was the case before and given the post-election situation in both the houses, major economic incentives are unlikely to come by in the future. Financial difficulties in the United States are also a contributing factor in this regard.

Despite challenges, however, there are prospects of a more realistic and productive relationship between the two countries. The obvious and immediate area of convergence is ending the Afghan conflict in a way that does not destabilise the region. Recent overtures from the US and Karzai government indicate that the US has “agreed” to give Pakistan its due role in resolving the Afghan conflict. Recent movements by Pakistan and Afghanistan are positive and supported by the US. Post-2014 stable Afghanistan is in the interests of both Pakistan and the United States. It will be premature, however, to expect too much from these signals but this may well be a starting point. In this perspective, a suspension of the unpopular and counterproductive drone attacks could be a visible confidence-building measure.

Pakistan and the United States can revive the strategic dialogue process which will help address, if not necessarily remove, Pakistan’s regional concerns vis-a-vis India, including the core issues such as Kashmir, Water dispute, etc. The major task for both Pakistan and the United States will be to see how the economic and political relationship between the two can be strengthened. As things stand, it would be unwise to expect much from the US in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. Pakistan needs to set its own house in order to deal with the United States on a more level playing field. Moreover, as Obama’s re-election promises little to offer, Pakistan needs to diversify its international contacts and strengthen itself domestically in order to sustain the pressure of its difficult bilateral relationship with the US.

By: Ali Sarwar Naqvi

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