January 16, 2010

What Happened To Hearts & Minds?

Farouk Umar AbdulMutallab will go down as one of the most successful failed terrorists in history. His dud of an “underwear bomb” drew international anxiety to Yemen and undermined President Obama's rational in Afghanistan, while injecting the latest dose of fear into the American people.

AbdulMutallab’s flop became Obama’s: how did yet another terrorist attack slip through America’s airport security?

Political pressure quickly exceeded the odds of another attack and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was ordered to employ strict security measures, ultimately slackened, before the White House released its security review.

Most travelers didn’t complain for the most part since an extra hour or two is worth a life, yet this attitude is al-Qaeda’s success. World travelers have grown accustomed to an uncomfortable lifestyle while governments waste funds on faulty security measures. US foreign policy becomes distracted with the latest threat.

Just how al-Qaeda draws them up.

But the real coup came 10 days after Christmas when the TSA announced that passengers traveling to and from 14 countries, all of them Muslim except Cuba, would undergo special security measures, including pat-downs and body x-rays. More than defending the homeland, these pure counter-terrorist measures went on the offensive in some unfriendly countries.

An estimated 650 million Muslims instantly fell under a single discriminatory profile, granting al-Qaeda’s wildest wishes in the process. It had prayed Obama would overreact.

He cannot be so quick to forget, because he chose limited counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, that a full-spectrum counterinsurgency must still be waged globally. The focus of US policy in the Middle East and West Asia remains on military operations and counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, Yemen, or Pakistan, as if impressions have dropped in value.

Image is priceless though, and Obama’s reaction to AbdulMutallab is diminishing America’s capacity to wage counterinsurgency. Some countries reportedly failed to comply to the security orders: Syria, Algeria, Libya, or Lebanon. Others immediately protested: Nigeria and Cuba. Pakistan was not said to be one of them, but nowhere is the backlash more visible.

Islamabad couldn’t withstand the domestic pressure after Nigeria flexed its spine.

“It is unfair to include Nigeria on the US list for tighter screening," said Professor Dora Akunyili, Minister of Information and Communications, “because Nigerians do not have terrorists' tendency. Abdulmutalab's act was a one off-thing. He was not recruited or trained in Nigeria. He was not supported whatsoever in Nigeria. His behavior is not a reflective of Nigerians and should, therefore, not be used as a yardstick to judge all Nigerians.”

Pakistan cannot make the same case so easily as the US-friendly Nigeria, but Ms. Akunyili’s statements resonated all the same.

Several days later Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousaf Gilani, officially protested the new airport security measures and demanded his country be removed from the list; Pakistan’s Senate is protesting. Just like that, Obama’s blanket could be cut from 650 million to 350 million. Hindsight isn’t necessary - his knee-jerk reaction stands in immediate contrast to his deliberation over Afghanistan.

Intense airport security measures are high risk, low reward since most Nigerians and Pakistanis will never fly anyway and the rest aren’t likely to be terrorists. Conversely, the resulting bad publicity has weakened Pakistan’s impact on his surge in Afghanistan.

Hope has faded in Pakistan's city streets, now subject to random explosions. The Pakistani Taliban’s (TTP) bloodbath finally installed al-Qaeda’s host as public enemy number one, but the Kerry-Lugar bill created a firestorm that overwhelmed US officials. Aggressiveness over North Waziristan and Baluchistan is chafing the Pakistani military establishment, while outrage in the media runs rampant.

The Nation, Pakistan’s nationalist paper, leads the chorus of anti-Americanism. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton receives no benefit of the doubt, wary of “the usual militaristic jingoism coming forth from the US Administration and Congress.” Of the new airport security measures, “This step exposes the anti-Muslim Christian Zionist mentality that is behind the War.” But the Nation isn’t alone.

The moderate Dawn and Daily Times expressed disapproval over numerous US policies including the airport security measures. A Daily Times editorial read, “It is time to do away with double standards, or else the Pak-US relations might come under duress. This will not bode well for our alliance against terrorism.”

The opinions weren’t so kind.

As a result of Obama’s underwhelming diplomatic efforts the TTP’s plummeting popularity hasn’t been capitalized on. Pakistanis want America out of their country as bad as Hakumullah Mehsud. A year after Obama assumed office and promised to rectify Washington’s relationship with Islamabad, America is considered a necessary evil at best, unnecessary at worst.

According to The News International, “Islamabad - for both political and economic reasons - really has little choice but to comply with directions from across the ocean. The real challenge is to change, in time, this humiliating reality... and move away from the sometimes strangulating grasp of the world's most powerful nation.”

President Obama still has options in despite the current situation, but boldness and creativity are required. Foremost is the possibility of a visit to Pakistan. No US action would have a more positive effect on Pakistani perceptions and it’s better late than never. But he can reach out to Pakistanis even if a tour is deemed too dangerous and security too vulnerable.

Remember Obama’s video messages to the Iranian people? Pakistanis didn’t see any of that. Mostly left out of his Cairo speech, their current interaction is limited to embattled US ambassador Anne Patterson. Obama needs to talk to Pakistanis. He’s gone silent on them when he's oin dire need of their support.

The most they’ve heard is “step up to the x-ray.”

Ending private contractors in Pakistan also demand serious consideration. Blackwater rumors are single-handily taking an axe to America’s image; again counter-terrorism has supplanted counterinsurgency, with counterproductive results. Pressure on India to open a debate on Kashmir would ideally follow, but since this move is unlikely, Obama can take other practical measures to improve US-Pakistani relations.

Prime Minister Gilani outlined several: “early disbursement of the long overdue payments under the Coalition Support Fund to Pakistan, the provision of the drone technology to Pakistan, and the removal of Pakistan from America’s list of the countries [with] new screening measures.”

President Obama and his officials won’t convince Pakistan to invade the entire FATA and fight America’s war in Afghanistan so long as these restrictions continue to be enforced. Gilani’s point is clear, America’s actions reveal distrust in Pakistan, and the feeling is mutual. Obama must reverse anti-American sentiment through active goodwill and lasting sincerity, not allow one failed terrorist to become the last nail in the coffin.

Only then will the possibility open of Islamabad confronting the TTP and Afghan Taliban head-on.

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