Jan 20, 2009 0
Barack Hussein Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States today, marking the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of a new era in American politics. Among those hopeful for change appears to be Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.
For the second time this month, Gen. Kayani has called for the ceasing of U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan. His statement yesterday was echoed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen. Tariq Majid, who said the attacks were causing political and economic trouble for Pakistan.
General Kayani’s comments could be dismissed as posturing for domestic consumption. But the timing — two statements in the final period of the Obama transition — suggests otherwise.
It is conceivable that Gen. Kayani consented to U.S. drone strikes in August as he concluded it was the lesser of two evils cash-strapped Pakistan had to choose from — the other evil being U.S. ground incursions. Factoring in his calculation could have been the fact that the Bush administration was on its way out and there would be a potential opportunity to strike a new deal in four months.
Whether this was Gen. Kayani’s game plan is unclear and it’s uncertain as to whether it would even work. After taking control over U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus reportedly told the Pakistani leadership that there will be no policy change in the next administration.
But the role of Gen. Petraeus, who arrives in Islamabad today, in the Obama administration is unclear. There appears to be a concerted effort by Chairman of Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen to sideline Gen. Petraeus (very transparent in Elizabeth Bumiller’s profile of Adm. Mullen).
And there will be new, multiple (and perhaps overlapping/competing) centers of power in the Obama administration. Managing the “team of rivals” will be a cerebral and pragmatic chief executive — a clear contrast from his predecessor. Despite the continuity of challenges, policy outputs could very well be different. And that might be what Gen. Kayani is banking on.
Change will not occur overnight. The Obama administration’s review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan war is expected to conclude by early April.
A dramatic game changer in Islamabad before then, however, would require an accelerated policy shift.