June 9, 2009

Muddy Water

The positive response to President Obama's speech in Cairo is evident across Pakistan's newspapers, and somewhat surprising after their harsh reporting on the missteps of American officials. Obama's words sounded sweet despite few details on Afghanistan and Kashmir's widely noticed omission. Pakistanis desperately want change.

But they aren't confused why Kashmir was left out.

India, through its power and lobby, has gracefully (some would say sinisterly) wrapped itself around Obama's circle, so much that he can't move on Kashmir. The latest American official to feel the pressure is Bruce Riedel, who recently stated, "I don't think that the Obama Administration intends to meddle in Kashmir." He's currently taking fire in the Pakistani press.

Those who believe Obama would realistically enter Kashmir negotiations weren't paying attention. He never talked about Kashmir until several days before the election and never campaigned on it like Palestine, so it's not surprising if he stays on the sideline.

India has made clear that it's in charge. Israel doesn't have that leverage.

But what to make of Mr. Riedel, one of Obama's South Asia and counterinsurgency "experts"? Judging by his actions, it's unclear what makes him so proficient in guerrilla warfare. Only a week ago Riedel published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, a crafty defensive offensive against Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Though he appears to defend Pakistan's arsenal, Riedel's article sparked more than a few counter-responses in the Pakistani press.

Two concerns rose above the rest. First, American policy towards Pakistan hasn't, "oscillated wildly over the past 30 years between blind enchantment and unsuccessful isolation," as Riedel claimed along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rather, this policy unfolded roughly as designed.

America was distracted from South Asia in the 1990's, but the plan was to use Pakistan then leave when that use ran out. American officials knew the plan when they returned after 9/11 and when General Musharraf resigned. The plan was stupid and insular, but not wild. The difference now is that this unbalanced system totally collapsed.

Riedel was also criticized for saying, "It is in Pakistan’s interest to get into the arms control debate on its own terms. Islamabad should put the no-first-use pledge back on the table with India, and it should sign the CTBT without demanding Indian adherence first... If it wants to get into the global arms control architecture and get a deal like the one India has gotten, Pakistan needs to show that the days of A.Q. Khan, Kargil and Mumbai are over for good and that it is addressing all the challenges it faces."

But the attitude is reversed in Pakistan. It shouldn't have to sacrifice to India just to "get into the debate" and America is who needs to prove itself. The press still debates America's true intentions. President Obama and his staff may be underestimating the history between India and Pakistan. Instead of simply telling Pakistan that India isn't a threat, relieve the tension between them by addressing Kashmir, poverty, and political representation.

Averting a crisis means being objective. Ongoing statements like Mr. Reidel's have branded him - and by extension the Obama administration - with a pro-Indian bias in Pakistan.

Not good for the co-architect of Obama's new strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy which itself received tepid reviews. Why is Mr. Riedel speaking for Obama in Pakistan and on Kashmir anyway? He doesn't appear to understand propaganda effects as well as he should.

And Mr. Riedel isn't Obama's only counterinsurgency "expert" taking heat in Pakistan, the center of the counterinsurgency universe. David Kilcullen is periodically mocked for his prediction that in six months Islamabad could collapse and al Qaeda will steal the nukes.

General David Petraeus is still jeered for his dire prognosis of "two weeks." Even if Petraeus didn't make such a statement, as he claims, what does it say about America's propaganda efforts that some Pakistanis still believe he did?

Add these problems to US envoy Richard Holbrooke, who’s being lampooned in cartoons, along with ambassador Anne Patterson, not so popular herself, and one wonders what is actually happening in Pakistan. Is this the best image America can project to the Pakistani people?

Last week Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said in his briefing, "We consider this a malicious campaign against Pakistan which in our view is contrary to facts. It is counter-productive to the collective objective of defeating militants and terrorism and also raises serious doubts in the minds of the people of Pakistan about the ... objective of those engaging in negative propaganda."

President Obama's words are clear but his officials are muddying the water. While his reputation is still golden his officials appear to be coal, and their actions are outpacing his words. How long before they tarnish Obama's reputation in a war theater that he now owns? Or are they acting on his orders?

We probably aren't supposed to know.

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