The South Asia Channel

Obama failed to outline the way forward in Pakistan

Obama failed to outline the way forward in Pakistan


By Brian Katulis

One striking thing about the president’s speech last night was how little he actually said about Pakistan, especially in comparison to his speech last March outlining the initial strategy.

He didn’t ignore Pakistan last night — the country got around 25 mentions, but that’s down from more than 40 references in the March speech, which was actually shorter in length compared to last night’s speech. But beyond the simple metric of how many mentions Pakistan received, the speech was particularly empty on the substance of what we are doing and planning to do about Pakistan in our policy approach, and actually offered fewer details than were presented in March.

President Obama reiterated many of the main points about why Pakistan is important to Afghanistan and the broader region, and then slipped into vague generalities about what the U.S. is actually doing or trying to do with Pakistan — "a partnership with Pakistan that is built on mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust." He also went on to mention resources going to support Pakistan’s democracy and development, and he highlighted the fact the United States is the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting.

But anyone looking for the "way forward" in Pakistan — that part of the speech was missing in action.

On the one hand, this may be understandable — his main audience last night was the American public, and adding more details on the complex situation in Pakistan may have just served to further confuse what was already a complicated, overly triangulated speech trying to please multiple audiences. He was trying to pack a lot of information into one speech, and quite frankly all of the troops and nearly most of the additional money he’s going to be asking for is going to Afghanistan – rather than to Pakistan. So speaking less about Pakistan may make some sense. In addition, from a strategic communications perspective, he was also trying to send messages to the Pakistani people and leadership, and the flurry of diplomatic activity and military and intelligence coordination we’ve seen between the United States and Pakistan — hardly a week goes by without a senior U.S. official traveling to Islamabad — demonstrates that there are many aspects of our bilateral relationship that won’t be discussed publicly.

Yet on the other hand, the dearth of information about the next steps in Pakistan in a speech that was billed as the way forward in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is troublesome on its own merits — because the global security interests are much greater in Pakistan than they are in Afghanistan. We’ve all heard the list of interests in play in Pakistan — it has nuclear weapons, plays host to multiple terror networks, and it has more than five times as many people as Afghanistan.

Having more clarity and delivering more on the way forward in Pakistan is particularly important given something Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote in his assessment three months ago: "Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan."

Last night, President Obama actually confused this very important issue — and conflated the various elements of the Afghan Taliban, which often receive support from Pakistani authorities, with the Pakistani Taliban, which have been attacking the Pakistani state and core interests. This is what Obama said last night:

Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

The United States has accused Pakistan of maintaining ties and offering support to groups such as the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin — which all play roles in the insurgency in Afghanistan. These groups are different from extremist groups like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which have been behind the increased violence targeting civilians and military installations alike inside of Pakistan.

In the murky world of northwest Pakistan, the dividing line between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban isn’t always clear, but the main point is that one set of groups has received support from the Pakistani security establishment, and another set is at war with the Pakistani security establishment.

Understanding that distinction is important to answering tough questions such as whether a surge of additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan could actually further undermine Pakistan’s stability.

In the Congressional testimonies and any additional speeches President Obama may do — and I think he needs to do a better job than he did last night — this point about more clarity on the way forward in Pakistan needs greater attention.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.