Obama and McCain Equally Mediocre on Pakistan

Pakistan, arguably the most important U.S. foreign policy issue right now, took up a few minutes in last night’s one and a half hour presidential debate.

In short, the discussion lacked substance. It was mostly a regurgitation of dated talking points from last year’s party debates. As such, the brief exchange confirmed the pre-existing positions of both candidates on U.S.-Pakistan relations.

But much has changed in Pakistan since last year. The situation in Pakistan is so volatile that each week brings ground changing developments. And so it is worrisome that both Barack Obama and John McCain have clearly not adapted their positions since the primaries.

The partisan debate on the cable channels (particularly DNC TV [MSNBC] and RNC TV [Fox News]) is nauseating and misleading. In reality, both candidates have their strengths and weaknesses on Pakistan.  Combine their strengths and you have a solid Pakistan policy.


Obama’s support for Pakistan’s fledgling democracy and appropriation of the Biden plan, which calls for vastly increasing development aid, is excellent. It is an integral part of a transition toward a full-fledged Pakistan policy.

But Obama seems unaware of the clear and present economic danger in Pakistan. The Biden-Lugar bill will not be passed till next year. And it will take time for funds to trickle into the country. [Plus, much of it will be eaten up by USAID and contractors.]  While Obama pats himself on the back for a proposal that is perhaps half a year from actually impacting Pakistan, more and more Pakistanis go hungry.  Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves are dwindling, its rupee is plummeting in value, and inflation is dangerously high.

If Obama were truly serious about Pakistan, he would have commented on the new Friends of Pakistan initiative — a coordinating body of Pakistan donors, including the G-7, China, and Saudi Arabia that had its first meeting on Friday.  He would have offered specific ways the United States could help Pakistan now, in this great time of need.

Furthermore, Obama still finds it necessary to compare his “Pakistan policy” to the Bush administration’s old “Musharraf policy.” With Musharraf out of the scene, after an OK from the Bush administration, this is an antiquated talking point.  It’s a different ball game.  No need to talk about the past.

Also, Obama seems to be unaware of the failures of Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government.  Zardari has concentrated power in his own hands.  His style of governance (he’s effectively governed the country, at least partially, since February) has focused on dividing and conquering opponents and deferring major issues (such as the judges’ restoration and parliamentary debate on the war on terror).  On this, Obama is silent.

Obama is most known in Pakistan for his call to go after high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan, if Islamabad is unwilling or incapable to do so.  Pakistanis abhor this policy. Obama’s statements contradicts his supposition that America’s standing in the world is important to U.S. national security and needs to be improved.  Not only does this policy hurt U.S. relations with the Pakistani public — 165 million strong it is — it also alienates Pakistan’s military.  And the worst thing Washington can do right now is pit Pakistani institutions against one another and push away Pakistan’s military — especially when they are essential for security purposes.  At this point, it seems as if Obama would not bode well for U.S.-Pakistan military ties, which have already deteriorated considerably.  And it is imperative that these ties improve.  Plus, a pincer attack on the Pakistani military would destabilize Pakistan, compelling the military to intervene or leading to the decay of its security apparatus.


McCain has yet to really come to terms with the existence of a civil, democratic government in Pakistan.  He fails to include Pakistan in his proposed League of Democracies.  He seems in denial — or his talking points have yet to be updated — so much that he is confused as to what the president’s name is.

McCain masterfully dished out the tricky names of Eastern European leaders, yet referred to Asif Ali Zardari as “Kardari.” Perhaps it was a Freudian slip.  Zardari is, in a sense, the Karzai of Pakistan. [It's ok, Pakistani newsreaders and commentators frequently mispronounce the two candidates' names. Barack is "Barrack" (as in military barracks) and McCain is "Mccann." Besides, Bush didn't even know Musharraf's name in 2000.]

But it also demonstrates the greatest flaw in McCain’s Pakistan policy: he has failed to adapt it to a post-Musharraf Pakistan.

While Obama would likely develop stronger relations with Pakistan’s civilian government, McCain seems like he would strengthen ties with Pakistan’s military. His Pakistan policy seems more influenced by Richard Armitage rather than Ashley Tellis (the architect of the U.S.-India nuclear deal). This is a critical half of the battle.  Pakistan’s military has been and will for the near to midterm be a major power broker in Pakistan.  It is obviously essential to resolving Pakistan’s security challenges.  But ties between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries have deteriorated considerably in recent months.  [Meanwhile, Pakistan's army chief has just completed a five day visit to China, where he will be shown "the money."]

McCain was right to criticize Obama’s idea of unilaterally striking high-value targets in Pakistan.  Though Obama’s idea is consistent with Bush administration policy, as I have stated earlier, it does not make it right.  McCain smartly noted that even if something like that has to be done, you’d don’t announce it publicly — especially when you are violating the sovereignty of an ally!

Also, the Arizona senator seems to have strong relations with Gen. David Petraeus, who will be running the show in Southwest Asia.  The present administration’s Pakistan policy seems to have been fractured within (VP’s office vs. State Department; CIA vs. parts of DoD/NSC).  McCain seems like he would have the confidence of his own military command and (partly due to the weakness of his own vice presidential candidate) would maintain a uniform policy throughout government.

Finally, McCain’s positions on Pakistan (sans the flaws) reflect a realism that is sorely lacking in many of other foreign policy positions, which have been tainted by a piecemeal adoption of neoconservatism.


Both candidates fail to understand the immense gravity of the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both have called for an additional 2-3 brigades for Afghanistan, when independent analysts say at least five or six are needed.

But neither the candidates, nor most in the U.S. policy community, truly understands the comprehensive failure that is Afghanistan. Despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan, the country is expected to face a major food shortage this winter.  Karzai, once seen as a saint among sinners, is becoming a typical corrupt third world dictator.  His curbs on the media, dancing with war lords, drug dealing brother, and bribe taking office have made him not only impotent, but hated.

Obama is right to tell Karzai to shape up, but it is also necessary to bring more Afghan power brokers (i.e. war lords) to the table, and, God forbid, think of a U.S. exit strategy.  These are the tough issues that will have to be dealt with after the election.

In respect to a Pakistan policy, Obama’s is more promising.  McCain offers strengths vis-a-vis relations with Pakistan’s military and respect for its sovereignty that Obama fares miserably on.

Combine Obama’s promise for strong ties with Pakistani democrats and McCain’s likelihood of restoring ties with the Pakistan Army, and you have a solid Pakistan policy.

Note: I wonder why Obama did not note in the debate (or other appearances) that he visited Pakistan while in college.  He stayed at the home of Pakistan’s most recent interim president and caretaker prime minister, Muhammad Mian Soomro.  Perhaps Obama does not want to invite further claims of Muslimness.  Perhaps Obama needs to grow a pair and teach these small-minded hillbillies a thing or two.  Recommended reading: Hofstader’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

Another Note: Some Democratic commentators criticized McCain for calling Pakistan a “failed state” when Musharraf took over.  They spun the comment to suggest that McCain called the Pakistan of today a failed state (wouldn’t be a major stretch, actually), which he did not.  Pakistan was on the verge of becoming a failed state when Musharraf took over in 1999.  The reasons for that are manifold, but McCain was not wrong.  A debate over whether Pakistan was a failed state or near that status is too technical for the U.S. presidential election.  Long story short, McCain was neither wrong, nor offensive (unless you’re Nawaz Sharif).

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Joe Biden Obama’s VP Nominee? Implications for U.S.-Pakistan Relations

The Democratic National Convention is less than a week away and that means Barack Obama will probably announce his running mate by this weekend.

The talking heads in Washington presently favor Joe Biden, though there are other heavily mentioned alternatives as well as the chance of a surprise pick.

But, if Biden is selected, the implications for U.S.-Pakistan would be many.  I’ll discuss four — two on the presidential campaign and two if Obama & Biden win in November.


One, an Obama-Biden ticket would bring together two individuals with a strong track record of supporting democracy and development in Pakistan. Both Obama and Biden have consistently argued that Pakistan’s democratization and cooperation in the war on terror are interconnected.  The responses of both Obama and Biden to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination reflected this belief.  In contrast, John McCain framed her death in the context of a battle between “moderates” and proponents of “violent Islamic extremism.” Biden has also proposed a massive increase in non-military assistance to Pakistan, which has been well-received there.

Two, the selection of Biden puts added pressure on McCain to re-vamp his Pakistan policy.  McCain’s Pakistan policy, at this point, is anchorless and hollow.  He hedged his bets on Pervez Musharraf, who is now discredited and out of the scene. Obama and Biden, in contrast, have come out hard on Musharraf for quite some time; they look prescient from Musharraf’s downfall.  In fact, Obama criticized McCain today for supporting Musharraf, stating that his opponent “spent years backing a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of his own people.”

In this sense, Obama’s advantage on Pakistan (and Afghanistan) mirrors McCain’s on Iraq.  The latter’s gamble on the surge has paid out; Obama has had to re-adjust and gingerly embrace the surge’s fruits.  One should expect the McCain campaign to make adjustments to a post-Musharraf Pakistan.  McCain, afterall, had to adopt the Obama proposal to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

But it’s unclear as to how far he will embrace the democratic set-up in Pakistan.  At this point, the likelihood is low — despite the fact that McCain has called for a “League of Democracies.” McCain’s response to Musharraf’s resignation, like his previous statements, emphasizes “stability” and a battle against “violent Islamic extremism.”

Stability, however, requires anchors and Pakistan’s cooperation in war requires local allies; McCain is unclear as to who those individuals/institutions are.  It’s a vulnerability for McCain that will be utilized in the presidential (and vice-presidential) debates.  Expect Biden to bring up his Pakistan plan a lot.  And I imagine McCain’s rejoinders to Obama would accuse the latter of threatening to violate the sovereignty of an ally.  But, as I have written earlier, Obama’s threats are consistent with the Bush administration’s policy.  The debate is, therefore, superficial.


An Obama-Biden administration would, one, likely mean that the vice president’s office will play an active, if not dominant, role in shaping U.S. policy toward Pakistan. This would represent some continuity with the Bush-Cheney administration, in which the vice president has been the major force shaping Washington’s relations with Islamabad.  Like Cheney, a Vice President Biden could be the go-to-guy when it comes to Pakistan.

But Biden lacks the unique (and disturbing) personalities traits of Cheney and will likely be more transparent in his dealings. Still, intra-administration turf wars are likely to come about.  They exist are natural to such entities.  Presently, there are tensions between the vice president’s office and the State Department on Pakistan.  While Biden would likely carve out elements of U.S. foreign policy as his own niche/turf (and some of his present Senatorial staffers might prove important), he would have to share space with other foreign policy influencers in the administration, who will likely include Susan Rice and Bruce Riedel.  Moreover, Obama’s intelligence and personality lend toward a hands on style of governance. So you won’t find the president hiding in the corner while Mommy and Daddy fight.

Two, Biden, as vice president can provide leverage to have the Biden-Lugar bill passed in the Congress next year.  The bill, mentioned above, calls for tripling non-military assistance to Pakistan.  Both Obama and Biden have called for building comprehensive, long-term ties with Pakistan  — a “Pakistan policy” as opposed to a “Musharraf policy.”  The passage of such a bill would mark an early foreign policy achievement for the young administration — though there is a chance it could be conditionalized to the extent that it would be useless.


Forecasting the next administration’s policy toward Pakistan is of questionable utility.  Pakistan’s present volatility suggests that U.S.-Pakistan relations could be more shaped by the ground realities in Pakistan than in the United States.  When campaign promises and track records meet present exigencies and the burden of responsibility, the latter two take precedence.

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John McCain Sort of Calls for a Democratic Coalition Against ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’

Republican presidential candidate John McCain gave an important foreign policy address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council today.

McCain described himself as a “realistic idealist.”

He, as he has done for quite some time, emphasized “the threat of radical Islamic terrorism” as the “transcendent challenge of our time.” The Arizona senator said these individuals seek to strike the United States with the “world’s most terrible weapons” and receive assistance from states that “share with terrorists the same animating hatred for the West.” McCain did not specifically mention any entities in this passage, but later stressed on al-Qaeda and Iran, creating a convenient and non-existent linkage between the two.

In order to combat this threat and advance “free people and free markets,” McCain called for greater ties with “the European Union…the great nations of India and Japan, Australia and Brazil, South Korea and South Africa, Turkey and Israel.” They would form the core of a “League of Democracies.”

McCain continued his indelicate dance between realism and neoconservatism, stating that the belief that autocrats like Mubarak of Egypt, the Saudi royals, and “the generals of Pakistan” provide stability is delusional, while cautioning against “act[ing] rashly or demand[ing] change overnight.” He said, “Change is occurring whether we want it or not.” McCain called on the U.S. to actively shape the this coming change to “benefit humanity” and not “let our enemies seize it for their hateful purposes.”

He argued for a multidimensional approach:

“Prevailing in this struggle will require far more than military force. It will require the use of all elements of our national power: public diplomacy; development assistance; law enforcement training; expansion of economic opportunity; and robust intelligence capabilities. I have called for major changes in how our government faces the challenge of radical Islamic extremism by much greater resources for and integration of civilian efforts to prevent conflict and to address post-conflict challenges. Our goal must be to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the vast majority of moderate Muslims who do not want their future controlled by a minority of violent extremists. In this struggle, scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs.”

McCain remains a ‘national interest first’ guy while adhering to a belief in an ideological struggle that verges on being cosmological. He struggles with two binary views of the world that don’t always gel well together: a) democracies (good) and autocracies (bad); b) supporters of “radical Islamic terrorism” (bad) and its opponents (good). In the end, this tension will likely linger and adjust according to developments on the ground and inside McCain’s head.

There was no mention of Pakistan’s February elections and new prime minister, though McCain says “the democracies of the world…will provide the pillars upon which we can and must build an enduring peace.” This is in large part because McCain and most in Washington have little idea as to how the new government and political players view the “transcendent challenge of our time.” And so, democracy in Pakistan, has little inherent value. If it fails to meet particular “transcendent challenge” benchmarks, then McCain the “realistic idealist” becomes simply a “realistic idealist.”

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McCain Attacks Obama on Pakistan; Unilateral U.S. Attacks in Pakistan Could Increase

In his Wisconsin victory speech, likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain attacked probable Democratic nominee Barack Obama as being weak on foreign policy and Pakistan played a bit of a role.

McCain’s eyes are now set on the general election and part of his campaign strategy is to present himself as having the “judgment,” “experience”, and “strength of purpose” to defend national security and the spread of American ideals.   He describes “radical Islamic extremism” as “the greatest evil, probably, that this nation has ever faced.”  McCain’s early offensive could put Obama on the defensive, bringing foreign policy and national security back to the forefront.

Just minutes ago, McCain stated that “political change in Pakistan is occurring that might effect our relationship with a nuclear armed nation that is indispensable to our success in combating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere.” A vote for Obama, said McCain, can push into office “the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally Pakistan.”

Over a week ago, President Bush made a similar attack on Obama, stating, “The only foreign policy thing I remember he said was he’s going to attack Pakistan and embrace Ahmedinejad.”

In reality, Obama never proposed attacking the state of Pakistan. He said, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” In other words, Obama would attack terrorists on Pakistani soil–a serious violation of Pakistani sovereignty, but not an attack targeting the state of Pakistan.

Moreover, both Bush and McCain criticize Obama for proposing something the Bush administration is already doing: attacking al-Qaeda and Taliban targets without the approval of the Pakistani government.

Robin Wright and Joby Warrick report in today’s Washington Post:

“Having requested the Pakistani government’s official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Officials say the incident was a model of how Washington often scores its rare victories these days in the fight against al-Qaeda inside Pakistan’s national borders: It acts with assistance from well-paid sympathizers inside the country, but without getting the government’s formal permission beforehand.

It is an approach that some U.S. officials say could be used more frequently this year, particularly if a power vacuum results from yesterday’s election and associated political tumult. The administration also feels an increased sense of urgency about undermining al-Qaeda before President Bush leaves office, making it less hesitant, said one official familiar with the incident.”




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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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