Obama's foreign-policy success in Pakistan

By Fareed Zakaria
Monday, March 15, 2010

President Obama gets much credit for changing America's image in the world -- he was probably awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so. But even devoted fans would probably say it is too soon to cite a specific foreign policy achievement. In fact, there is a place -- crucial to U.S. national security -- where Obama's foreign policy is working: Pakistan.

A spate of good news has been coming out of that complicated country, which has long promised to move against Islamic militants but has rarely done so. (The reason: Pakistan has used many of these same militants to destabilize its traditional foe, India, and to gain influence in neighboring Afghanistan.) Over the past few months, the Pakistani military has engaged in serious operations in the militant havens of Swat, Malakand, South Waziristan and Bajaur. Some of these areas are badlands where no Pakistani government has been able to establish its writ, so the achievement is all the more important. The Pakistanis have also ramped up their intelligence-sharing with Washington. This latter process led to the arrest last month of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban, among other Taliban figures.

Some caveats: Most of the Taliban who have been captured are small fish, and the Pakistani military has a history of "catching and releasing" terrorists so that they can impress Americans but still maintain their ties with the militants. But there does seem to have been a shift in Pakistani behavior. Why it occurred and how it might continue are a case study in the nature and limits of foreign policy successes.

First, the Obama administration defined the problem correctly. Senior administration officials stopped referring to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and instead spoke constantly of "AfPak," to emphasize the notion that success in Afghanistan depended on actions taken in Pakistan. This dismayed the Pakistanis, but they got the message. They were on notice to show they were part of the solution, not the problem.

Second, the administration used both sticks and carrots. For his first state dinner, Obama pointedly invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- clearly not Pakistan's first choice. Obama made clear that America would continue to pursue the special relationship forged with India under the Bush administration, including a far-reaching deal on nuclear cooperation. At the same time, the White House insisted it wanted a deep, long-term and positive relationship with Pakistan. Sens. John Kerry and Dick Lugar put together the largest-ever nonmilitary package of U.S. assistance for the country. Aid to the Pakistani military is also growing rapidly.

Third, it put in time and effort. The administration has adopted what Gen. David Petraeus calls a "whole of government" approach to Pakistan. All elements of U.S. power and diplomacy have been deployed. Senior administration officials have made more than 25 visits in the past year, all pushing the Pakistani military to deliver on commitments to fight the militants.

Finally, as always, luck and timing have played a key role. The militants in Pakistan, like those associated with al-Qaeda almost everywhere, went too far, brutally killing civilians, shutting down girls schools and creating an atmosphere of medievalism. Pakistan's public, which had tended to play down the problem of terrorism, came to see it as "Pakistan's war." The army, reading the street, felt it had to show results.

These results are still tentative. Pakistan's military retains its obsession with India -- how else to justify a vast budget in a poor nation? It has still not acted seriously against any of the major militant groups active against Afghanistan, India or the United States. The Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani group, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Lashkar-e-Taiba and many smaller groups operate with impunity in Pakistan. But the Pakistani military is doing more than it has before, and that counts as success in the world of foreign policy.

Such success will endure only if the Obama administration keeps at it. Some believe that Pakistan has changed its basic strategy and now understands that it should cut ties to these groups altogether. Strangely, this naive view is held by the U.S. military, whose top brass have spent so many hours with their counterparts in Islamabad that they've gone native. It's up to Obama and his team to remind the generals that pressing Pakistan is a lot like running on a treadmill. If you stop, you move backward -- and most likely fall down.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. His e-mail address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

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