The problem with assessing President Barack Obama’s foreign policy after little more than 100 days is that it is nearly impossible to distinguish what has already become policy from approaches that might be termed more tentative. Does he really think that a continued American engagement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and on behalf of Israel serves the national interest? Maybe not. There are signs that a broad reassessment of U.S. policy is underway, though critics who have been rightly soured by eight years of George W. Bush’s blundering note that Obama appears to have embraced the interventionist formula that has proven so disastrous. Nation-building will not work in Afghanistan, and interference in neighboring Pakistan has produced a nuclear country that is self-destructing. Taking the two countries together, it is clear that Central Asia has become the poster child for U.S. foreign policy ineptitude.
The Bush administration’s tendency to try to sell an otherwise questionable foreign policy continues. President Obama’s pledge after last week’s meeting with the Pakistani and Afghan presidents that he is dedicated to defeating al-Qaeda was intended to push a button with the American audience. He knows perfectly well that al-Qaeda has become a minor player in the Central Asian drama and that the problem is much larger than the terrorist group that carried out 9/11. To be fair to Obama, it should be accepted that the Bush administration created the Afghanistan and Pakistan crisis that he has inherited. Obama has questioned existing policies even though he has increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by only half the number requested by the Pentagon. He has also increased the intensity of Predator drone strikes directed against Taliban and al-Qaeda inside Pakistan. He would be well advised to think yet again about what he is doing.
The increase in soldiers will not win the day, and would not even if it were double the number being committed, because the Afghan topography means the U.S. has to rely on air power, which leads to high civilian casualties and has turned the Afghan people against the NATO mission. More important, the narco-trafficking-fueled corruption in the Karzai government is so pervasive that Afghans have lost any hope that their lot will ever improve. Without that, the insurgency, which at least offers stability, will inevitably win, and the American GI will follow his British and Russian counterparts in the graveyard of empires. There is no reason to believe that allowing a government that includes the Taliban in Afghanistan threatens the United States. Quite the contrary, as the Taliban are not interested in exporting any revolution and are intensely inward-looking. They will also likely have learned the lesson of 2001 and will know that their support of any international terrorist movements will result in a devastating response from the United States. Obama could stay a while to save face, put a Band-Aid on the situation, and then get out while there is still an option to do so. The Afghans will sort out their own future just as they always have. If it is not a free-market, pluralistic, democratic future, then so be it.
In neighboring Pakistan, where the terrorists are, there is also a losing hand playing out. The Bush embrace of the extremely corrupt Benazir Bhutto in the summer of 2007 only produced a leadership crisis leading to a country that is corrupt, incompetently led, and crumbling before a seemingly unstoppable onslaught of Taliban extremists who represent only a small portion of the population. Bhutto, educated at Radcliffe and able to make the right noises to an ignorant U.S. president and Congress, received the bipartisan seal of approval to bring democracy to the Pashtuns and Punjabis. Someone should have checked what happened the last time she was in power, from 1993 through 1996. Asif Ali Zardari, the current president of Pakistan, rules only by virtue of the fact that he was married to the assassinated Bhutto, not through any personal merit. He used to be referred to as "Mr. Ten Percent," because he demanded that amount in kickbacks from all government contracts while his wife was prime minister. Now he is referred to as "Mr. Twenty Percent."
In Pakistan, the same old story of corruption and competing interests cripples any effort to have a unified and effective policy in a place where Washington wants to dabble in local politics with little understanding of what actually is taking place. The U.S. policy of counterterrorist drone strikes adds spice to the witch’s brew, killing Taliban and al-Qaeda but also many civilians, strengthening the hand of the government’s critics, and increasing anti-American sentiment. A drone might get lucky and kill Osama bin Laden, which would admittedly have huge psychological impact, but the luck has not exactly been running Washington’s way lately. The tribal areas are in de facto revolt and in some regions there is already autonomous local government. The rebels, if they win, will undoubtedly introduce an unpleasant, fundamentalist regime, not unlike that of the dreadful Taliban years in neighboring Afghanistan. And the insurgents might well win no matter what the U.S. does. They have two advantages over the lumbering half-a-million strong Pakistani army, which should, on paper at least, be able to obliterate them. They are passionate believers in their cause and ready to die if necessary, unlike army conscripts, and they benefit from the army’s concentration on the border with India. Even the current Pakistani offensive against the Swat Valley is relying heavily on air power, because there are insufficient troops on the ground.
Many Pakistanis have a fear and loathing of India that is hard to understand from Foggy Bottom but easy to understand if one is a politician in Islamabad confronted by 1 billion increasingly assertive Indians and an army twice as big as Pakistan’s. Uncertainties about what India might do mean that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is in play. One month ago, Chief of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen was able to report that the Pakistani nuclear weapons were secure. Now there are reports that the Pakistani army has partially operationally deployed, which might involve moving the missiles and nuclear weapons from storage areas to hidden, dispersed sites. The Pakistanis do not greatly fear that the U.S. will try to neutralize their nuclear missiles, but they do believe that India might try to do so if the political situation deteriorates further. They want to be able to strike back at India even as they are dissolving into chaos.
Again, as in Afghanistan, what should Obama do? Providing technical support to help secure the Pakistani missiles is a good step that is already taking place and is indisputably in America’s national interest, but a halt to drone strikes and disengagement from Pakistan’s fractious internal politics would send a welcome message that the United States will cease its interference. President Zardari is seen as a U.S. puppet, precisely the same perception that first weakened and then brought down his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Removing the heavy U.S. footprint from a highly volatile situation would increase the president’s authority, not weaken it. Pakistan has an interest in curbing both terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and its own domestic Taliban. It should be encouraged to do so on its own terms, not given marching orders and then rebuked when the orders prove impossible to execute. The more Washington interferes, the worse the situation will inevitably become, an axiom that has been true almost everywhere in the world of late, the poisonous fruit of the "Bush Doctrine."
Leaving Central Asia alone might seem like a radical step to some, but it could be the only option that would actually improve the situation, forcing the people of the region to come up with their own answers and solutions. It would also be better than turning on the nightly news and watching wave after wave of U.S. helicopters evacuating staff from the roofs of the embassies in Kabul and Islamabad. We Americans have been there before.