It’s National Af-Pak Day: Kiss me, I’m from the Swat Valley…

Today, in the nation’s capital, began our new, fun for the whole family National Af-Pak Festival. Goat on a stick for everyone! Unfortunately, despite White House efforts to prepare for this event, the real leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan were unable to make the trip to Washington. So, the president has had to make do ...

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586043_090506_obamabBBB2.jpg
President Barack Obama meets with Presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Cabinet Room of the White House on May 6, 2009. left to right : President Hamid Karzai, President Barack Obama, President Asif Zardari, Pakistan agency pool photo by Dennis Brack/Black Star

Today, in the nation's capital, began our new, fun for the whole family National Af-Pak Festival. Goat on a stick for everyone!

Unfortunately, despite White House efforts to prepare for this event, the real leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan were unable to make the trip to Washington. So, the president has had to make do with the two figurehead leaders of these countries -- Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai, two dubious, often bumbling, albeit popularly elected clowns who leave us with the impression that these neighboring Stans were both named in part after Stan Laurel.

Today, in the nation’s capital, began our new, fun for the whole family National Af-Pak Festival. Goat on a stick for everyone!

Unfortunately, despite White House efforts to prepare for this event, the real leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan were unable to make the trip to Washington. So, the president has had to make do with the two figurehead leaders of these countries — Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai, two dubious, often bumbling, albeit popularly elected clowns who leave us with the impression that these neighboring Stans were both named in part after Stan Laurel.

Of course, theirs is a dark kind of comedy, more in the vein of say, Kurt Weill or the Coen Brothers. To get a sense of just how bleakly comic it is, just watch Zardari’s attempt to spin America in his interview with Wolf Blitzer yesterday (lampooned today by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). It’s the least convincing effort to use the media to persuade the world that a faltering, inadequate leader was actually up to the job since George W. Bush’s last press conference (though to be honest, Zardari makes Bush look like Pericles.) Karzai has been little better. It was only a few weeks ago that he appalled us with a merengue around the issue of legalizing rape in marriage that was so tortured and difficult to watch it reminded us of Steve O’s recent stint on “Dancing With the Stars.” 

Of course, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s real political leaders remained back at home doing what they usually do — running the army, leading opposition groups, and planning terror attacks. But in honor of these festivities one of the most prominent of these true powers, the Taliban, agreed to stage a commemorative parade of perhaps 500,000 people on the road out of the Swat Valley. Like most Taliban events, this one will undoubtedly feature their special breed of rock concerts — which, unfortunately for participants, translates into “group stonings” in Urdu. (And I don’t mean like at a Phish concert.) In addition, much of Waziristan will be shut down for the occasion…and also, as it turns out, for the next 200 years. Furthermore, as a special concession to our quest for building ties to moderate Taliban, the United States has agreed to provide a special, all-American guest of honor for that ever-popular regional fave, adulter-stoning. Yes, we’re sending John Edwards. His wife, Elizabeth, donated several cartons of her new book to be used in lieu of actual rocks.

Meanwhile back in Washington, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and a chunk of the cabinet are meeting with Zardari and Karzai. (Though despite today’s public display of embracing one another at the White House, you get the impression that after hours Asif and Hamid will not be heading to the Willard for appletinis. Ok, out of respect to Islamic prohibitions against alcohol consumption, virgin appletinis.)  

Earlier today, Secretary Clinton indicated there were encouraging signs of progress in the meetings between the two countries…although it has to be acknowledged her task was made somewhat more difficult by her simultaneous need to apologize for scores of civilian deaths that may have been caused by a U.S. strike in Afghanistan. Later, President Obama called the meetings “extraordinarily productive” which suggests that despite the deficiencies of the two visiting leaders such meetings may be helpful. 

So what were the signs of progress besides the meetings themselves? Well, um…Afghanistan had seemed increasingly irrelevant to the core conflict which has been relentlessly and worryingly intensifying in Pakistan but, that could change as tens of thousands of Pakistani refugees stream into the neighboring country. Not encouraging enough for you? Ok, remember when Admiral Mike Mullen announced that  the situation in Pakistan was really worrisome? Well, now he said he’s not so worried. (No hint of coercion, er, constructive guidance from his civilian bosses there. And Zardari’s attempts yesterday to be reassuring on this subject were particularly unconvincing.)

Nonetheless, despite all the perfectly sensible reasons to be cynical about all this, there is also something refreshing and pragmatic about Obama’s intensive, constructive efforts to open and maintain communications channels as well as offer meaningful support for things like schools, roads, and hospitals, and generate good will in Af-Pakia. It would be naive to be too hopeful that such efforts will produce precisely the results we want. Money is fungible. These governments are neither efficient nor known for their probity. These leaders, in case I’ve neglected to mention it, aren’t members of the A-team. But just as Obama, Clinton, and Holbrooke have no choice but to deal with the presidents, it would be foolish not to make the kind of regional strategy effort the administration is currently undertaking. The stakes are too high and the options — should things go further down the tubes — are not good. (For a summary of such options, see David Sanger’s excellent column in yesterday’s online edition of the New York Times.)

So, while I don’t think the Cherry Blossom Festival has anything to worry about just yet, I think we should all hope these Af-Pak Festivals remain a fixture on the Washington schedule as long as they produce anything like meaningful results…and I’m glad that the response to what appear to be intractable problems is not simply to bluster or to minimize them or to turn away. 

Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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