Obama’s tough call

By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 06/08/07):

She says he’s “naive” and can’t do “tough”. So how does Barack Obama respond to Hillary Clinton’s scorn? With worldly-wise super-tough. Either Pakistan roots out foreign terrorist cells, cans the Taliban and seals its borders, or embryo President Obama will cut off aid to Musharraf’s army. And if his US has evidence of al-Qaida leaders lurking in some cave over the frontier from Afghanistan and Islamabad refuses to act? “Then we will.” He’ll send the marines in. Obama does ignorant and stupid too, it seems. Draw a deep breath and hope that, somewhere, somehow, calmer counsels prevail.

Would the beleaguered Musharraf we see today like to silence his religious militants? Of course. Storming the Red Mosque testifies to that. He knows who his enemies are now. They keep trying to assassinate him. He also knows that the politician he exiled and persecuted – Benazir Bhutto – may be his only chance of hanging on to the presidency.

He’s weak, not strong; and growing weaker. But if he went tomorrow, killed by some roadside bomb, then Pakistan would perforce reach for some other general. It would be that, or chaos.

While the BBC sedately celebrates 60 years of Indian partition, the true nightmare is of a teeming country with a runaway birth rate that has found no settled means of governance and now begins to tear and fracture itself from within, as the “pure state” of Islam splits and splits again. Oh, and don’t forget the bomb – the one Pakistan has that Iran mustn’t on any account be allowed.

So there are hard practicalities here. Can the Pakistan army occupy and subdue the vast tribal territories along the Afghan border? It has never managed to in 60 years. The army is basically Punjabi: the frontier land is alien. The best Islamabad has contrived in peaceful times is a kind of ad hoc devolution which lets the tribes govern themselves. But these aren’t peaceful times. Guerrilla cum civil war is one more potential swirl in the growing chaos.

Obama, for all his experience of growing up in Indonesia, doesn’t seem to comprehend how desperate and frail the situation is. Cut off funding and aid to the army? In a trice, that antagonises the only current factor for stability that exists within Pakistan and, worse, increases its radicalisation. The religious right has its sympathisers in uniform too.

Does Obama want to see a huge fighting force turn anti-American overnight? Does he want a general in the presidential palace who vows that Washington is foe not friend? Worst of all, having invaded, his marines under fire halfway up some Waziristan ravine, how does he propose to subdue the very areas that Islamabad itself has never been able to subdue? If you think the Sunni triangle is difficult, then this is simply impossible. Bombing Tehran, by contrast, would be a breeze.

Present policy, stretched to the limit, means keeping Musharraf on his feet and on the west’s side. That’s increasingly difficult to do. Sealing the Afghan border and blocking Taliban supply lines looks ever more impossible – which means that the war inside Helmand province and beyond goes on and on.

But if you want to make a bleak situation worse, just try the Obama road. Perhaps he wouldn’t tread it once elected. Perhaps there’d be old hands at the department of state who’d explain the realities to him. Perhaps the compassion and understanding he shows in other human affairs could be brought to bear. The questions Hillary Clinton asks about Obama’s steadiness and experience aren’t foolish ones: she remembers the peril of Black Hawk down – and she also knows that sending in the marines may guarantee a hustings cheer but no success. It may be tough to acknowledge that; but it isn’t naive.