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Obama knows that he can't succeed in Afghanistan without coming to terms with Pakistan. So why is his diplomacy so lousy?

By , president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia.
John Gress/Getty Images
John Gress/Getty Images
John Gress/Getty Images

As last weekend's NATO summit made clear, President Barack Obama's Hamlet-like indecisiveness on Pakistan plagues his administration's relationship with the country and its president, Asif Ali Zardari. Obama remains unable to effectively manage the need to both apologize to and reengage Pakistan, while at the same time moving the country away from supporting militant groups that destabilize it and the region.

Since November, the Obama team has agonized over whether it should apologize for the deadly U.S. air attack on a Pakistani Salala military base along the border with Afghanistan. Twenty-four Pakistani soldiers died as U.S. helicopters fired on the Salala base for two hours, including more than an hour after Pakistani liaisons pleaded for the attacks to stop. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that planned apologies to Pakistan were aborted numerous times -- including once after Qurans were found to be desecrated by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Washington has expressed "regret" and offered its condolences for the incident.

For all the importance Obama claims to place on Pakistan, he has taken a back seat in directing the sinking partnership with Islamabad. In the extensively sourced Wall Street Journal report, the president is missing from the narrative. The internal administration debate on whether to apologize to Pakistan seems to be one among principals, deputies, and senior aides. But the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is too important for Obama to delegate.

As last weekend’s NATO summit made clear, President Barack Obama’s Hamlet-like indecisiveness on Pakistan plagues his administration’s relationship with the country and its president, Asif Ali Zardari. Obama remains unable to effectively manage the need to both apologize to and reengage Pakistan, while at the same time moving the country away from supporting militant groups that destabilize it and the region.

Since November, the Obama team has agonized over whether it should apologize for the deadly U.S. air attack on a Pakistani Salala military base along the border with Afghanistan. Twenty-four Pakistani soldiers died as U.S. helicopters fired on the Salala base for two hours, including more than an hour after Pakistani liaisons pleaded for the attacks to stop. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that planned apologies to Pakistan were aborted numerous times — including once after Qurans were found to be desecrated by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Washington has expressed "regret" and offered its condolences for the incident.

For all the importance Obama claims to place on Pakistan, he has taken a back seat in directing the sinking partnership with Islamabad. In the extensively sourced Wall Street Journal report, the president is missing from the narrative. The internal administration debate on whether to apologize to Pakistan seems to be one among principals, deputies, and senior aides. But the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is too important for Obama to delegate.

As a candidate, Obama argued not only that the war in Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the real post-9/11 war, but also that Pakistan holds more strategic importance for the United States than Afghanistan. In a June 2008 address, Obama said, "as president, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] the top priority that it should be." He added, "The greatest threat to that security [in Afghanistan and the United States] lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan." In Obama’s first two years as president, his administration reviewed America’s AfPak strategy not once, but three times, with numerous course corrections along the way. Numerous press accounts portray the president as deeply and very personally involved at key points in the decision-making process.

Contrast that with his behavior at the NATO summit: Initially, the White House told reporters the president would not meet with Zardari, a clear snub. But this clashed with the administration’s strategy of enhancing and maintaining support with Pakistan’s civilian democrats while taking the military to task. By summit’s end, the administration backtracked — realizing that a complete snub of Zardari could hurt Pakistan’s fragile democratic transition — and Obama held two "brief" meetings with the Pakistani president. The White House highlighted these interactions, yet emphasized that they were not especially substantive. Obama then awkwardly avoided mentioning Pakistan in his press conference at the summit’s close. (He referred to NATO’s commitment to bringing "peace and stability to South Asia, including Afghanistan’s neighbors," but Pakistan is the only South Asian state that borders Afghanistan.) Finally, Obama gave an extensive response to the first question from the media, which was on Pakistan, giving the impression that his discussions with Zardari were wide in scope. The Obama administration’s behavior was not carefully calibrated diplomatic messaging, but tactical maneuvering that was imprecise, difficult to decipher, and verging on passive aggression. It was amateur hour.

The president’s refusal to apologize has kept U.S.-Pakistan relations frozen at last winter’s nadir, and the spring has seen no thaw. Relations could have been back on track had the president swallowed his pride and allowed his diplomatic team to bring Pakistan on board to secure a lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Yes, the White House fears the Romney campaign could cast too many concurrent apologies as weakness. But economic and domestic, not global, leadership, will decide who wins in 2012. And the Obama campaign can refute claims of weakness on Pakistan by reminding voters that Obama not only unilaterally sent Special Forces into the heart of the Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden but also vastly expanded the drone bombing campaign on Pakistani soil, over the vocal opposition of the Pakistani government and public.

A strategic convergence between the United States and Pakistan is possible. Neither wants civil war in Afghanistan. Both have leverage over different sets of belligerents in Afghanistan’s intensifying internal feud. (Pakistan has the most clout with the Taliban and its Afghan allies, while the United States has working, albeit increasingly troubled, ties with a broad segment of mainstream Afghan factions.) But both lack a coherent, viable Afghanistan strategy. Washington hopes to hand over security control to Afghan forces its own troops believe are compromised by drug-abuse and thievery. Meanwhile, Islamabad has succeeded only in antagonizing most of Afghanistan’s power brokers; its partners, the Taliban and associated militant groups, are incapable of taking over the country. Pakistan is the most disliked country in Afghanistan. And the longer instability prevails in Afghanistan, the bigger the strain on Pakistan’s economy and security. A stable Afghanistan in which all major power brokers, including the Taliban, are brought into a legitimate and reasonably effective political process is in the interest of both Washington and Islamabad.

Though Pakistan is in a period of political transition — new elections could take place as early as October — Obama should engage Pakistani civilian leaders on how to best aid Afghans in resolving their civil war. Washington can help Islamabad in its outreach to non-Pashtun power brokers, such as members of the anti-Karzai and anti-Taliban National Front. Islamabad can in turn coax the Taliban and Haqqani network to join a sustained peace process. Only by working together can the United States and Pakistan serve as guarantors of a lasting, Afghan-owned political settlement.

Some might dismiss the idea of engaging Pakistan’s civilians on security issues. After all, isn’t the military in charge? But in the past year, Pakistan’s federal cabinet and parliament have played a much more active role in forming the country’s national security policy. Civilian oversight bodies, such as the prime minister-led Defense Cabinet Committee, have been remarkably more proactive since the bin Laden raid. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security, led by Senator Raza Rabbani, has created a landmark set of recommendations on how to reshape ties with the United States. It’s the product of consensus between secular ethnic nationalists, Islamists, and centrist parties. And last year, a conference consisting of all of Pakistan’s major political parties resolved to "give peace a chance" and back out of the war on terror.

Americans are tired of war. So are Pakistanis and Afghans. There is a collective realization that war is not the solution, but the road map for peace has yet to be charted.

President Obama has a diminishing but real opportunity to not simply exit from Afghanistan, but exit in a way that vastly reduces the prospects of renewed civil war. To start, he must break the impasse with Pakistan and engage its civilian leadership. But this time, the conversation can’t be brief.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

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