Obama’s First Test?

By
Friday, November 28, 2008 at 3:16 pm
Fire breaks out at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai during terrorist attacks this week. (rubaljain, flickr)

Fire breaks out at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai during terrorist attacks this week. (rubaljain, flickr)

President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on deploying additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan — and, potentially, taking military action in Pakistan — as part of a renewed focus on a neglected war against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. When he takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he’ll inherit a far different regional picture in South Asia than his campaign could have anticipated.

Over the past several weeks, developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India pose new challenges for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The Karzai government in Kabul has dramatically moved to bring the war to a conclusion — announcing the pursuit of far-reaching negotiations with the Taliban-led insurgency and calling, for the first time, for a U.S. timetable for withdrawal.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Changes and obstacles in Pakistan and India have significant implications for the region next year — particularly this week’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai that have left at least 160 people dead.

With Obama’s foreign-policy team not yet in place, it is unclear how his administration will handle what looks more and more like a simmering crisis in South Asia. Experts say hard choices are unavoidable.

The incoming administration must make “an overall assessment of where this [Afghanistan] mission is going,” Dan Markey, a former State Dept. official and current regional expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a conference call this week, “whether it accepts Afghanistan to be, in the next 10 years or 20 years, a modern, centralized state or … a place that will have to continue to be radically decentralized in order to be effective.”

Whatever Obama’s assessment of the future of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is, he will have to react to President Hamid Karzai’s recent initiatives. In October, the Afghan president sent his brother to Saudi Arabia to begin discussions with former members of the Taliban on whether a deal could be struck that ends the insurgency.

The Taliban — whose leadership is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta — have insisted that there can be no deal without U.S and NATO troops leaving first. But plans are underway in Washington to increase the number of U.S. troops by an Army brigade and a Marine battalion — about 5,000 troops — by January. At least two more Army brigades are expected to deploy to Afghanistan in 2009.

Experts in the U.S. have intensely debated the utility of negotiating with the Taliban. Most doubt that the so-called “Quetta Shura” Taliban — the hardcore of the religious movement driven out of power in 2001 and still loyal to Mullah Mohammed Omar — will negotiate a deal with the Karzai government. But they do see potential for the Afghan government to sow divisions between the Quetta Shura and its affiliated insurgent groups, as well as between the Taliban-led insurgency and the Afghan people.

“The enthusiasm that there is — such as there is — for reconciliation is very much along the lines of taking particular warlords who are aligning with the Quetta Shura and Mullah Omar as a matter of tactical convenience or economic advantage and peeling them off,” said Steve Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a confidante of Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general of U.S. forces in South Asia. His comments were in response to a question from The Washington Independent on the conference call.

Petraeus expressed openness to some form of negotiations with the Taliban during a talk in October to the conservative Heritage Foundation, as has Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Still, many questions remain. Even if non-Quetta Shura-dominated insurgents express an openness to negotiations, it’s unclear what the Karzai government is prepared to offer for peace. “The problem at the moment is figuring out what incentive an individual warlord has to switch sides,” Biddle said on the conference call. “There’s a lot of skepticism that what we have to offer can compete with the status, power, prestige, money and so on that the key warlords enjoy by being on the other side.”

In a pre-election interview with Time magazine’s Joe Klein, Obama tepidly endorsed exploring negotiations with the Taliban, drawing an analogy to Iraq. “The Sunni Awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally,” Obama said. “It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off … tribal leaders, regional leaders, Sunni nationalists from a more radical messianic brand of insurgency. Well, whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored.”

A complicating factor is Obama’s repeated insistence that under certain emergency conditions of Pakistani intransigence, he would use military force in Pakistan to kill or capture top Al Qaeda leaders. It is unknown what effect a military incursion would have on any prospective Karzai-Taliban peace talks.

This week, Karzai delivered another surprise. Speaking in Kabul to a visiting United Nations delegation, he publicly flirted with a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. “If there is no deadline, we have the right to find another solution for peace and security, which is negotiations,” he said. It is unclear how prepared Karzai is to press the issue with the new administration.

Intimately related to Afghanistan is a rapidly changing situation in Pakistan. The new government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has sent mixed signals to Washington. In response to increasing U.S. military incursions into Pakistani territory to attack leaders of the Afghanistan insurgency, Pakistani troops opened fire on their ostensible U.S. partners in September. Both Zardari and Kayani issued harsh statements denouncing violations of Pakistani sovereignty.

Yet some in Washington have whispered about the Pakistanis accepting a tacit modus vivendi — allowing U.S. missile strikes into the volatile tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

“The Pakistan-U.S., or Pakistan-NATO, military-to-military relationship along [the Afghanistan-Pakistan] border is, in many ways, significantly better than has been reported here in Washington,” said Markey, who recently toured U.S. military installations in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has “actually been able to coordinate fire with their Pakistani counterparts — that [U.S. commanders] have essentially gotten calls from the Pakistani side identifying militants who were getting ready to cross across the border; and that they have identified those with Pakistani help, and that they have called in fire from U.S. or NATO forces.”

Still, experts say the Obama administration will have to transform the U.S.-Pakistani relationship if Pakistan is to remain a stable ally in the war on terrorism while it confronts a growing insurgency at home. Under the Bush administration, relations with Pakistan centered on military ties and largely ignored the economy.

A new report from the liberal Center for American Progress — whose president, John Podesta, is heading the Obama transition team — argues for a fundamental restructuring of U.S.-Pakistani ties. “U.S. policy must recognize that the military component alone is insufficient to build stability and security in Pakistan,” the report states. It calls for “a diverse approach, including strengthening governance and rule of law, creating economic opportunities and exploring political negotiations” with militant groups.

While it’s by no means clear whether this week’s multiphased attacks in Mumbai involved Pakistani militant organizations, the attacks underscored the rising tide of militancy that threatens Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as India. On Friday, the Zardari government offered to dispatch Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of its powerful intelligence service, to assist India in investigating the attacks — a tacit recognition that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence was a natural suspect, given its long history of anti-India subterfuge.

To combat the rising instability, the still-coalescing Obama administration will have to make a number of hard choices in a rapidly changing environment. It’s possible that South Asia will be the first major foreign crisis the new administration confronts.

Follow Spencer Ackerman on Twitter


Comments

44 Comments

moments
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

Obama’s First Test?

No.

President Bush is currently our President, it's his test on his watch.

“We only have one President at a time.”


les
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

Barack Obama is NOT the President yet. This is on George Bushes watch. Stop making this as if it has to do with Obama already. It is not right to put the it all on Obama. It does no one a service when the media creates stories like this.


JN
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

UM, how is this Obama's first test and he isnt president yet?

I swear you morons cant wait to jump on him and proclaim him a failure before he even has a chance to give his inaguration speech.

Sad really.

THis is G.W. BUsh's problem as of now. This headline should be reserved for Jan. 20th and then you'll be well within you rights to ask him what he is going to do about the next tragedy.


Jeri
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

And what is Obama supposed to do Mr. Ackerman? He isn't president yet. Why isn't this Bush's last days test? The MSM needs to stop trying to create policy, not tomention trouble.


NFS
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

As a member of the media community, I have been so embarrassed by my colleagues and how unfair and totally unobjective their reporting has been through this whole election process. This worsening situation of war and how to enact our military initiatives should not yet be the problem with President-Elect Obama and your headlines and stories should not make it so. It's appalling that he is making statements and trying to address critical issues that the current administration should be handling…this is the reason why our country and thereby the world is in the mess it is now. Our current administration has done nothing but wreak havoc both inside and outside the U.S. borders, without taking responsibility for any of it. Shame on Bush, Cheney and the rest..


george987789
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

ys


E forest
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

Why dosnt Bush resign now , hes just marking time till jan 20, in normal times it wouldnt matter but these are exceptional times. P E Obama needs to be sworn in now, terrorists dont recognise Christmas, P E Obama is needed to get on with the job,Bush is on cruise controll not what is needed .
pay him his dues and let him go.


Jane D
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

The Obama administration is going to have use some urban American tactics for these tough foreign neighborhoods. These folks act like gangs on the streets of Chicago, New York and LA. He need to have regional conferences: First send a envoy to Palenstine and Israel, next India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and last but not least Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran and Iraq. This is why he said that he would meet with these leaders without pre-conditions. Some of these countries aloud the militant groups act without rule of law because they are an extention of the government. You got to talk face to face to let them know that you are not going to be punked. Obama learned this by working on the streets of Chicago. He has to take this Middle East problem head on, it is out of control. The Gulf states since they have all the OIL money they need to help build some of these countries infrastructure ( Jobs, Edcation, Roads, Electricity etc). This thug behavior is sickening. Bush inflamed that whole region. Why are they not thinking about the children future, I think it's selfiish. We know that there was times when this region was exploited for their resources by the West but dam come on. Think of the children, they want the same as the Western children want peace.


Chopin
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

The overall regional political imperative is the necessity to come to a regional political settlement to accommodate ALL factions that are currently involved in the conflict. No military solution or hope for victory is worth the costs in the long run. The Russians after 10 years of bloody conflict in Afghanistan have come to that conclusion. The Karzai government in Karbul has come to that conclusion. Most probably, an obscured fact which would be brought to light in serious negotiations to take place soon, the Taliban factions are probably also exhausted and weary of endless armed conflict.

Only cowboys, idiots or fools would persist in pursuing a military victory. One of that has already openly expressed regret over such illusions as “mission accomplished” in light of the unfolding historical reality.
.
… Hopefully, the intelligent incoming President Obama, after a soul-searching, complete, systematic and honest reappraisal of the long term interests of United States and the region, would place priority on political negotiated settlement over any illusory pyrrhic military “victory”.


TwoWheelsBetter
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

Excellent article.

During the campaign, Obama made a big deal about how he was going to move more troops into Afghanistan. If that was more bluster than desire, then Karzai's recent moves give him an out.

As we've seen this week, Pakistan, not Afghanistan is the real issue. I don't know of any American politician, journalist or academic who has presented a coherent strategy for dealing with that country.

I really like the quote cited from the interview with Klein; Obama makes more sense of the past two years in Iraq than Bush ever has. Perhaps we need a “Taliban Awakening” of sorts in Afghanistan.
Regardless, this article helps place the challenges in context.


Sabreen60
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

What the heck is Bush doing??? Isn't he STILL the President. Obama has absolutely no authority to do anything, but make statements and pull together his Cabinet, which he is doing. Is Bush still receiving a salary? If so, he should give at least 3 or 4 months back to the public. Why are you letting Bush off the hook? He's in Camp David doing what he has been doing – NOTHING!


Heather
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

Don't you first have actually be President of the United States to get tested?

We do recall Russian-Georgian conflict this summer and wouldn't that have been considered a test and with Dmitry Medvedev to a state visits to Venezuela and Cuba, isn't that a test as well?

We do Barack Obama has the exact same amount of legal and actual power now as he did in August, maybe less since he is no longer a member of the US senate.

We do get that India is a sovereign democracy and not a failed state and even George W. Bush couldn't argue that Americans need to liberate the Indians?


Ted
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

Why is this a foreign policy test for Obama? This is an Indian problem. If the terrorists were going after Americans and Britans we would have had only American and British deaths. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the connection.

The message from Prez Elect was measured. We have fishes of our own to fry in Pakistan.


John Paul Telhomme
Comment posted November 28, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

Mr. Ackerman, Dude, Obama is NOT the president yet. He will be in about 50 days. Already you are heaping on him the burdens of the economic crises and of world terrorism. And what are those tangential blames for what was said during the campaign? So, your conclusion is that if he had only said the right things then world and Mumbai would be different today?


Fred
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 4:39 am

The Karzai “democratically elected” government is totally corrupt, has done nothing for the country, and is despised by its citizens. The US military has called the shots in Pakistan since 1958 when it became a backer of Zia. Bhuto's husband, now Presidnet Zardan, has a long history of corruption that made him one of the richest people in the country, one still semi-feudal in nature with the big land owners in control of a population livingin virtual serfdom, and the Pak economy is rapidly going down the tubes. This article makes much of the presence of Al Qaeda, an organization that barely exists; it's – same as ever going back to the 19th century – the Pashtuns who whipped the British in the fist Anglo-Afghan war in 1848 – 16,000 Brits went into Afghanistan, one came out. For decades the US has been “involved” in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Result – an ever worsening situation for the peoples of both nations and growing hatred of the US. Their countries, their problem. Time for us to leave or we will be mucking around in the region for endless decades to come.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 5:48 am

Whoa, hang on. Read through the article and you'll see there's not the faintest hint of blaming Obama for Mumbai. What I wrote was that the picture in South Asia has changed significantly in recent weeks; will probably change more by Jan 20; and that will be Obama's first test. The piece has rather little to do with Mumbai. And if you Google my name and “Barack Obama” I feel confident that you'll not consider me biased against the incoming president.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 5:49 am

… I'm just going to repeat what I said to @JN.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 5:52 am

Letting Bush off the hook — the piece was about how the changing situation in Afghanistan/Pakistan/India will be a flashpoint for the incoming administration. I don't know how many times I can write the “Bush: Still A Catastrophe & A Douchebag” story, and to be frank, I'm looking forward to Jan. 20 for many reasons, but among them is the fact that I'll no longer have to.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 5:55 am

Oy. Nothing of the sort — I don't honestly see how you read this piece and see me in any way heaping “tangential blame” on Obama for any of the developments I referenced. But apparently enough people read that into the piece so I need to say it loud and clear: MUMBAI IS NOT BARACK OBAMA'S FAULT. The piece attempted to look recent developments in South Asia; point out the rapidity of that change; and contend that they might add up to an early test for the Obama administration. That's it and that's all. There's no anti-Obama subtext here.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 5:57 am

Very kind of you to say. That was all I endeavored to do. And you're absolutely right about no one possessing a coherent Pakistan strategy, although I think CAP's is a pretty good offering.


galabuzi
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 6:49 am

Please review


CraigHickman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 7:36 am

Where is George W. Bush?


wale
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 8:05 am

ehmm…folks…Mr Ackerman here simply speaks to the challenges building up for the upcoming administration. He is blaming no one.


Schvenzlerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 9:22 am

This is all about two gas pipelines: 1) one controlled by the U.S. from the central asian nations through Afghanistan and Pakistanstan and 2) one to be built by Iran and Russia through Iran and Pakistan. The latter would compete with the former, so the U.S. and its allies will break up Pakistan and turn it over to warlords following their pattern in Afghanistan. It's all about money and Obama is just the latest lackey President. We've seen all the Change we're going to see. Meet the New Boss; same as the Old Boss.


Bru
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 9:37 am

Where he's always been – idiotland.


Christopher Flynn
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 9:57 am

That seems to be a perennial problem of the US…”mucking around”…


Pat Croft
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 11:14 am

Clearly we need to remove our troops from Afaghanistan. This is a war that should have never happened. Early on in the Bush administration the Taliban offered to send Ben Laden to a third country for trial. Instead we sent our troops in to remove the Taliban.

Because the Taliban was once in power I would doubt that they are interested in sharing power with the existing government and with Karzai. Hence negotiation is unlikely to tilt this problem to our advantage.

Adding more brigades will inflame the problem.


Fred
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

The Karzai “democratically elected” government is totally corrupt, has done nothing for the country, and is despised by its citizens. The US military has called the shots in Pakistan since 1958 when it became a backer of Zia. Bhuto's husband, now Presidnet Zardan, has a long history of corruption that made him one of the richest people in the country, one still semi-feudal in nature with the big land owners in control of a population livingin virtual serfdom, and the Pak economy is rapidly going down the tubes. This article makes much of the presence of Al Qaeda, an organization that barely exists; it's – same as ever going back to the 19th century – the Pashtuns who whipped the British in the fist Anglo-Afghan war in 1848 – 16,000 Brits went into Afghanistan, one came out. For decades the US has been “involved” in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Result – an ever worsening situation for the peoples of both nations and growing hatred of the US. Their countries, their problem. Time for us to leave or we will be mucking around in the region for endless decades to come.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

Whoa, hang on. Read through the article and you'll see there's not the faintest hint of blaming Obama for Mumbai. What I wrote was that the picture in South Asia has changed significantly in recent weeks; will probably change more by Jan 20; and that will be Obama's first test. The piece has rather little to do with Mumbai. And if you Google my name and “Barack Obama” I feel confident that you'll not consider me biased against the incoming president.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

… I'm just going to repeat what I said to @JN.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

Letting Bush off the hook — the piece was about how the changing situation in Afghanistan/Pakistan/India will be a flashpoint for the incoming administration. I don't know how many times I can write the “Bush: Still A Catastrophe & A Douchebag” story, and to be frank, I'm looking forward to Jan. 20 for many reasons, but among them is the fact that I'll no longer have to.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

Oy. Nothing of the sort — I don't honestly see how you read this piece and see me in any way heaping “tangential blame” on Obama for any of the developments I referenced. But apparently enough people read that into the piece so I need to say it loud and clear: MUMBAI IS NOT BARACK OBAMA'S FAULT. The piece attempted to look recent developments in South Asia; point out the rapidity of that change; and contend that they might add up to an early test for the Obama administration. That's it and that's all. There's no anti-Obama subtext here.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

Very kind of you to say. That was all I endeavored to do. And you're absolutely right about no one possessing a coherent Pakistan strategy, although I think CAP's is a pretty good offering.


galabuzi
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

Please review


CraigHickman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

Where is George W. Bush?


wale
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

ehmm…folks…Mr Ackerman here simply speaks to the challenges building up for the upcoming administration. He is blaming no one.


Schvenzlerman
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

This is all about two gas pipelines: 1) one controlled by the U.S. from the central asian nations through Afghanistan and Pakistanstan and 2) one to be built by Iran and Russia through Iran and Pakistan. The latter would compete with the former, so the U.S. and its allies will break up Pakistan and turn it over to warlords following their pattern in Afghanistan. It's all about money and Obama is just the latest lackey President. We've seen all the Change we're going to see. Meet the New Boss; same as the Old Boss.


Bru
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

Where he's always been – idiotland.


Christopher Flynn
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

That seems to be a perennial problem of the US…”mucking around”…


Pat Croft
Comment posted November 29, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

Clearly we need to remove our troops from Afaghanistan. This is a war that should have never happened. Early on in the Bush administration the Taliban offered to send Ben Laden to a third country for trial. Instead we sent our troops in to remove the Taliban.

Because the Taliban was once in power I would doubt that they are interested in sharing power with the existing government and with Karzai. Hence negotiation is unlikely to tilt this problem to our advantage.

Adding more brigades will inflame the problem.


louis vuitton
Comment posted August 6, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

Because the Taliban was once in power I would doubt that they are interested in sharing power with the existing government and with Karzai. Hence negotiation is unlikely to tilt this problem to our advantage.


louis vuitton
Comment posted August 6, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

Because the Taliban was once in power I would doubt that they are interested in sharing power with the existing government and with Karzai. Hence negotiation is unlikely to tilt this problem to our advantage.


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