U.S. President Barack Obama met with leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday to discuss the growing threat of the Taliban.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner considers the signficance of the three-way meeting and the challenges facing President Obama going forward.
The Obama administration held a mini-summit yesterday with the civilian leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. An Associated Press report quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said it was a “breakthrough meeting,” telling reporters the sessions covered trade, water sharing, military training and anti-corruption drives, among other issues.
It is unlikely that this was a breakthrough meeting.
The visits by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had only limited significance, and anything those two leaders could say would have little impact on the larger problems at hand.
Certainly, there would be no reason to speak negatively or disparagingly of either leader — that would do no more good than to assume that the meetings with President Obama and administration officials accomplished much. But a breakthrough would mean that all three had figured out how to solve their problems.
Zardari is an elected civilian president, the first civilian since the military under Parvez Musharraf ceded power under mighty criticism. Zardari is in the presidential chair as a result of the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed on Dec. 27, 2007 after being encouraged to return to Pakistan from exile. Neither the United States nor the Pakistani military or police were able to cushion her from the bomb attack.
Zardari is said to have little, if any, sway with the Pakistani military, which for the time has responded to U.S. pressure and is fighting Taliban militants. There are predictions that perhaps half a million refugees will flee the areas of those battles. And there are well-placed military analysts in the United States and elsewhere who think that even if the Pakistani military has the stomach to fight and keep fighting extremists, the resulting battles would harden support for the Taliban in the poorest parts of the country.
Karzai faces his own problems. Warlords govern large fiefdoms in his country, and his power is limited, at best, to Kabul, the Afghan capital. The Taliban, chased from power in 2003, are extending their reach throughout the country; Karzai faces challenges in upcoming elections and he has clearly heard President Obama question his ability to fight corruption, or even leave the grounds of the presidential palace to govern his country. No assurance he might give Obama, and no pledge of U.S. military aid — which will arrive with or without Karzai — is particularly germane to the larger issues of stability in that part of the world.
President Obama needs to do something convincing and new in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is the commander-in-chief, and when the U.S. military accidentally kills Afghan civilians as it did this week, he will have trouble in protecting his reputation as the anti-Bush in international relations. His secretary of state, besides saying the meetings with the Karzai and Zardari were “breakthrough,” made references to civil action measures — a hint of the military doctrine of winning over “hearts and minds” in the midst of low intensity warfare. That theory is coherent, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to gains and breakthroughs that can be measured in weeks and months.
There comes a point after you’ve bought a new spread with broke-down fences, after you’ve repaired the place and patched the holes, you’ll call it your own. The Obama administration hasn’t gotten there yet, but let’s describe the damage for what it is.
– Peter Eisner