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Stay on the treadmill

Pakistan’s military retains its obsession with India — how else to justify a vast budget in a small, poor nation? It has still not acted seriously against any of the major militant groups active against Afghanistan, India, or the US, writes Fareed Zakaria.

india Updated: Mar 15, 2010 22:32 IST

President Barack Obama gets much credit for changing America’s image in the world — he was probably awarded the Nobel Prize for doing so. But if you asked even devoted fans to cite a specific foreign-policy achievement, they would probably hesitate. “It’s too soon for that,” they would say. But, in fact, there is a place where Obama’s foreign policy is working, and one that is crucial to US national security — Pakistan.

There has been a spate of good news coming out of that complicated country, which has long promised to take action against Islamic militants but rarely done so. (The reason: Pakistan has used many of these same militants to destabilise its traditional foe, India, and to gain influence in Afghanistan.) Over the past few months, the Pakistani military has engaged in serious and successful operations in the militant havens of Swat, Malakand, South Waziristan, and Bajaur. Some of these areas are badlands where no Pakistani government has been able to establish its writ, so the achievement is all the more important. The Pakistanis have also ramped up their intelligence-sharing with the US. This latter process led to the arrest a month ago of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban, among other Taliban figures.

Some caveats: most of the Taliban who have been captured are small fish, and the Pakistani military has a history of ‘catching and releasing’ terrorists so that they can impress Americans but still maintain their ties with the militants. But there does seem to be a shift in Pakistani behaviour. Why it’s taken place and how it might continue is a case study in the nature and limits of foreign-policy successes.

First, the Obama administration defined the problem correctly. Senior administration officials stopped referring to America’s efforts in Afghanistan and instead spoke constantly of ‘Af-Pak’, to emphasise the notion that success in Afghanistan depended on actions taken in Pakistan. This dismayed the Pakistanis but they got the message. They were on notice to show they were part of the solution, not the problem.

Second, the administration used both sticks and carrots. For his first State dinner, Obama pointedly invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — clearly not Pakistan’s first choice. Obama made clear that America would continue to pursue the special relationship forged with India under the Bush administration, including a far-reaching deal on nuclear cooperation. But at the same time, the White House insisted it wanted a deep, long-term, and positive relationship with Pakistan. Senators John Kerry and Dick Lugar put together the largest non-military package of US assistance for the country ever. Aid to the Pakistani military is also growing rapidly.

Third, it put in time and effort. The administration has adopted what Central Command’s General David Petraeus calls a “whole of government” approach to Pakistan. All elements of US power and diplomacy have been deployed. Pakistan has received more than 25 visits by senior administration officials in the past year, all pushing the Pakistani military to deliver on commitments to fight the militants.

Finally, as always, luck and timing have played a key role. The militants in Pakistan, like those associated with al-Qaeda almost everywhere, went too far, brutally killing civilians, shutting down girls’ schools, and creating an atmosphere of medievalism. Pakistan’s public, which had tended to downplay the problem of terrorism, now saw it as ‘Pakistan’s war’. The army, reading the street, felt it had to show results.

These results are still tentative. Pakistan’s military retains its obsession with India — how else to justify a vast budget in a small, poor nation? It has still not acted seriously against any of the major militant groups active against Afghanistan, India, or the United States. The Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani group, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, and many smaller groups all operate with impunity within Pakistan. But the Pakistani military is doing more than it has before, and that counts as success in the world of foreign policy.

Such success will endure only if the Obama administration keeps at it. There are some who believe that Pakistan has changed its basic strategy and now understands that it should cut its ties to these groups altogether. Strangely, this naïve view is held by the US military, whose top brass have spent so many hours with their counterparts in Islamabad that they’ve gone native. It’s up to Obama and his team to remind the generals that pressing Pakistan is a lot like running on a treadmill. If you stop, you move backward, and, most likely, you fall down.


Fareed Zakaria is the Editor of Newsweek and the author of The Post-American World The views expressed by the author are personal.

© Washington Post News Service