Obama and Pakistan: Let’s Hope for the Best

Posted on September 4, 2007
Filed Under >Haider Mullick, Foreign Relations, Pakistanis Abroad, People, Politics
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Guest post by Haider Mullick

When Senator Barack Obama advocated unilateral military action against Pakistan, if the Pakistani Army refused to act first on actionable intelligence, he was referring to President Musharraf’s so-called aloofness from this issue in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded promptly and forcefully; it termed the senator’s remarks “irresponsible” and called them a cheap shot at scoring political points at home. Senator Hillary Clinton‘s assessment about Senator Obama‘s naive foreign policy perspective was echoed by Republican forerunners such as Mitt Romney who said Obama wants to “have tea with our enemies and bomb our allies.”

This op-ed will analyse the Senator’s speech with two major assumptions; the Senator’s speech advocated a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy toward the Muslim World from forced regime change to holistic economic, cultural and military engagement; second, despite his progressive ideas, the Senator’s remarks about Pakistan were ill-informed.

Only two hours after he spoke to a robust crowd at my internship place, Woodrow Wilson Center, I waited patiently to meet him. I had previously talked to his young and ambitious staff members about Pakistan; I was perturbed by his harsh tone toward Pakistan. When the senator approached me, I introduced myself. There was a pause and then I asked him jokingly, “Senator, are you going to invade my country?” His smile disappeared for a second and then came back. It mirrored his ambivalence.

This ambivalence is not ubiquitous in Senator Obama‘s experience in U.S. foreign policy toward the Muslim World. The senator’s speech, and arguably the most important part of it, was focused on the need to “redefine the debate” between the United States and the Muslim World by “not compromising on America’s values.” He implied that America’s moral ground based on liberty and justice for all was lost to an inconsistent and hypocritical foreign policy. Among major initiatives to remedy the situation, such as the Middle East peace process and US military operations in the world, the senator advocated the creation of “America’s Voice Corps,” which the senator said will “send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with – and listen to – the people who today hear about us only from our enemies.” Such a force of young people will be able to combine their efforts with their counterparts in the Muslim World creating bridges of understanding and common goals.

Moreover, Senator Obama stated his willingness to talk to America’s traditional enemies and allies in the Muslim World; he resurrected President Kennedy’s famous phrase, “never fear to negotiate but never negotiate out of fear”. He said that today’s world was interdependent and becoming increasingly united not by major peace initiatives but by individuals through inter-religious and inter-ethnic integration, and one that can not easily be divided into axes of good and evil; a world where state and non-state actors are equally and dangerously influential. For example, failed states, if neglected, become America’s colossal failures, and non-states such as Al-Qaeda become more organized and ambitious with every ill-conceived military action in the absence of political and economic reform.

Therefore I was baffled by the Senator’s broad-brush criticism against America’s only significant Muslim ally in the war on terror. Home to the Muslim World’s second largest population and its only nuclear power, Pakistan provides a 100,000 strong and committed military force and not a mercenary force in the war on terrorism. The Pakistanis are fighting their own war, one that has placed a shadow of doubt over every citizen and one that the government is finding harder to fight because of its own mistakes in quashing democratic forces.

However, unlike mass media organizations such as CNN and Fox News, Pakistanis don’t easily forget their fallen. More than 1,200 young Pakistani men and women in uniform have died in a war that was more difficult for them than the one Americans are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq in that they had to kill and capture their own nationals – talk about deteriorating morale when one is ordered to kill citizens not thousands of miles away in a distant country but a few miles away from one’s capital city, and sometimes a few blocks away from the Awan-e-Sadr, the “Pakistani White House.”

Senator Obama wanted to criticise President Musharraf’s failed attempts to curb terrorist activity by brokering peace with tribal leaders operatives in Waziristan region of Pakistan. But then there is no credibility in the Senator’s statements if he implies that Pakistan should be punished for its more than five year campaign. Pakistani forces have killed or captured the largest number of bad guys, more than all other allies combined including the master mind of 9/11. In addition, the notion of US-unilateral military action on Pakistani soil is not new – for years American Special Forces have conducted missions in Pakistan.

That said Pakistan’s current sacrifices are not sustainable or justifiable in the long-run without political reform. Many soldiers have died in vain due to ill-conceived military adventurisms in the FATA and Baluchistan region. They died for their country, which is controlled by unelected hubris. There was never a vote for or against the war on terror, no vote to send the troops, no debate on their armor, no questioning about the budget. It was done for reasons many Pakistanis support, but by officials who rarely took their case to the people.

There was progress in the war on terror but political uncertainty, civil liberty violations and the general feeling of apathy among the youth have created a dangerous environment. Together with the sheer force of Pakistani patriotism in the upcoming elections, and Senator Obama‘s pro-engagement strategy in 2008, we can all “hope” for a better future, otherwise the senator’s inadequately nuanced words may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Haider A. H. Mullick is interning at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Brookings Institution; and also leading an in-depth research project on education reform in the Muslim world at the Hudson Institute’s Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World. This article also appeared in the Nation

31 Comments on “Obama and Pakistan: Let’s Hope for the Best”

  1. September 4th, 2007 9:58 am

    Here is the video of the reaction of the South Asian Community of Chicago who staged a protest when Obama was there for a fund raising.


  2. September 4th, 2007 10:15 am

    What the hell could ‘actionable intelligence’ mean? Similar to what they had about Iraq?

    Very reassuring. Indeed.

  3. Aqil Sajjad says:
    September 4th, 2007 10:20 am

    Obama is not unusual. Over the years, I have seen several relatively sensible people who even acknowledge that American foreign policy is badly flawed, but still have very harsh views about Pakistan without any understanding of our complexities and how the US itself and its ally India have also contributed to some of the problems. We Pakistanis certainly have to take responsibility for our own problems, but when others start a Pakistan bashing campaign where they use us as a scapegoat for even their own mistakes/misdeeds, we should try to counter such propaganda. Unfortunately, Pakistanis living abroad don’t do much in this regard. Whether it’s Obama or someone else, we won’t get much better treatment unless we do a better job of pointing out Pakistan’s serious complexities and how other countries have made things worse.

  4. faraz says:
    September 4th, 2007 10:49 am

    Aqil, do we have a platform where Pakistanis can speak?

    We have CAIR(for all american muslims) and there is also a platform for Arabs but not specific for Pakistanis. May be we can evolve “All think pakistan” to a media outlet, then we can make some noise. Organization is the missing secret; otherwise, I have found muslims, including pakistanis quite active.

  5. E. Shafaq says:
    September 4th, 2007 11:03 am

    There is a distinction between military action against Al Quaida in Pakistan and military action against Pakistan.

    By telling the truth, Obama gave people like you the chance to challenge him on the issue. Would you prefer if he kept it a secret until he became President?

    Because, the fact of the matter is, you will NOT find a single Presidential candidate who disagrees on unilateral military action against Al Quaida in Pakistan, if the Pakistani Army refused to act first on actionable intelligence.

    There are patriots in America who oppose bad policies. Yours is blind patriotism to your country. I’m Pakistani-American, but I’m American first and foremost and I fully support Senator Obama’s plan because this is a very important aspect of our national security. And far too many experts agree with Obama on this.

  6. Naseem says:
    September 4th, 2007 11:11 am

    Asaalamau Laikum,

    Currently the Amreeki are top dogs. Attitudes like Obhama come from confidence to impose their will on other less able states like ours.

    Clearly being next to Afghaistan does not help us Pak either.

    Perhaps we could do joint Air force strikes over these regions. It may mean that Amreeki planes are invited & can stay in our airspace for a limited time period.

    Perhaps we could invite Obhama to the next jigra that is setup…let’s hear his views on the border problems and how the Amreeki can help if they were given a free hand.

  7. Param says:
    September 4th, 2007 11:18 am

    Anybody can take a popular stand. It’s nobody’s fault if Pakistani-Americans cannot read English.

    Moreover, if Pakistani-Americans are more interested in Pakistan than in America’s national security, then they should give up American citizenship. That’s what the constitution demands. You cannot have conflicting allegiance.

    Senator Obama has pledged full support for Pakistan, both militarily and financially. He has also pledged stronger relations with the muslim world. But an American president WILL ALWAYS and MUST ALWAYS take the hard decision to defend AMERICAN interest. That’s how it’s been and that’s how it’s ALWAYS going to be.

    This is not about Pakistan. Pakistan is our ally. This is about Al Quaida that has made a safe haven in Pakistan. Even the Afghan President expressed the same concern.

  8. Akif Nizam says:
    September 4th, 2007 11:24 am

    …are you guys serious ? You really think that an impromptu statement made by a presidential candidate actually reflects the eventual policies his potential administration would have? Obama was just trying to sound strong on defence and made a stupid comment. Let it go !

  9. lida says:
    September 4th, 2007 11:37 am

    One things for sure.
    If democrats win that will be really bad for Pakistan but good for American Muslims.
    Republicans are good for Pakistan( and its Army) but bad for American Muslims.
    Democrats are good for American Muslims but really bad for Pakistan ( and especially its Army).

    Being a Pakistani American I would say that we should for Democrats so that Pakistan gets its self out of depending on US for everything. We need to use China are our superpower godfather and build a strategic partnership( a real one). Enought of this China Pakistan Bhai Bhai we need to do a major strategic shift.

    CAIR USA did a huge blunder by supporting republicans and they( American Muslims) got slapped on the face hard.
    I hope CAIR and other muslims voices don’t repeat that mistake again.

  10. Masood Afridi says:
    September 4th, 2007 11:41 am

    I am sorry, but this is rather unimpressive knee-jerk reaction that is naive and ratehr childish. I expected better analysis than this at this website.

  11. haroon says:
    September 4th, 2007 12:02 pm

    Why do we have this here? The story is old, the writeup is stale, and this author has nothing new to say.

    I agree with others that an American candidate shoudl be thinking fo America’s nterests. I wish one day Pakistani candidates will also start thinking of what is good for Pakistan.

  12. faraz says:
    September 4th, 2007 12:07 pm

    Akif Nizam, it is not just Obama. I think next president of USA will do the same. USA can not allow safe heavens. They are holding just because of Bush relations with Mush.

    Nawaz just assured USA that he will be tough against OBL supporters. Infact BB or Nawaz have to work hard to win trust of Western world. We have voices like Imran khan, Qazi and Hameed Gul, who want this war to be stop. Well it is not simply in hand of Pakistan to stop this war. Either OBL group should surrender or either West should change its policy. Third option is complete destruction of OBL and countries like Pakistan by West. Pakistan is just a foot soldier. We are between a rock and a hard place.

  13. Shafique says:
    September 4th, 2007 12:23 pm

    While we all deplore the statements made by a rookie senator/presidential candidate Obama, we must also mention here that Bush Inc. has been preparing to do exactly that and their Homeland Security advisor told Fox News exactly what Obama said albeit in a more roundabout way.

    US have been conducting strikes on Pak soil ? on and off.

    Considering, what the hell is going on in Pakistan as we sit and do armchair analysis ? there are more urgent and critical issues to worry about than Obama.

  14. king_faisal says:
    September 4th, 2007 1:25 pm

    pakistani reaction to obama’s remarks just shows how out of touch ordinary pakistanis are with the values of the civilised world. citizens of civilised countries like america believe that its the duty of the government to protect the lives of its citizens. thus if the u.s. government has information that terrorists in pakistan are planning to kill americans either in the u.s. or abroad, u.s. government will act to eliminate those terrorists either by asking pakistani government to do the needful or by acting unilaterlally if no help is forthcoming from pakistan. if pakistanis dont want to be in the firing line of americans, they should stop giving shelter to the terrorists who want to kill americans. pakistanis off course have the option to fight the americans which if i know pakistanis, would be the likely choice of a large number of people if not the majority. and no, u.n. wont come to our aid by imposing sanctions on the u.s. because under u.n. resolution 1368 passed after 9/11, americans have carte blanche to pretty much do whatever they please to pakistan or to any other country for that matter that harbours terrorists.

    i also have to say that even though i am a pakistani, i would applaud the actions of u.s. government were it to act against pakistan. i reside in the west and my life is threatened by these terrorists as much as that of a westerner. and while i applaud the actions of pakistani government against the terrorists, i believe the good work done by our fauj is being undermined by the leftist-mullah alliance in pak which controls the pakistani media through which it spreads hatred of our government. its the stupidity of the jehadi mullah and their leftists/commie allies that will bring pakistan to its knees. ordinary people will unfortunately bear the brunt but that?s the price we have to pay for staying silent in the face of jahaluth, stupid, irrational, cowardly people don?t deserve a country of their own.

  15. YLH says:
    September 4th, 2007 1:39 pm

    Those who think that Obama’s “action plan” is supported by “experts” ought to see the reality on the ground.

    You have Pakistani Army fighting a difficult and losing battle in an area which has evaded capture by the every invader, British and the Russians being the latest ones.

    Pakistan has bent over backwards to fight this war on terror and to tell you the truth I have always considered terrorism to be a greater threat to us than anyone else in the world. But the way Americans are acting… even those who are trying to be more loyal than the king… like E-shafique etc … I wonder if it is worth fighting this war and losing our soldiers?

    But I say let us support the American “Action Plan”… why let withdraw Pakistani troops altogether. And if Americans want to go to South Waziristan and North Waziristan … let them… let them put their Marine Corp and the US Army … let it be them instead of us. Let them go in and understand the enormous sacrifice Pakistan has made fighting its war in the region. Pakistani Army atleast has been there for the past few years… US Army will not – with or without Air Support- last more than three weeks.

  16. Shafique says:
    September 4th, 2007 1:51 pm

    @YLH: you mean E.Shafaq

  17. Akif Nizam says:
    September 4th, 2007 2:45 pm

    Faraz and King Faisal, now you guys are forcing me to do a right-turn on my earlier comments because of your naive points of view. I’m a Pakistani-American too and detest the scourge of Islamic terrorism and realize that the threat is real. However, it is obvious to any discerning eye that the threat is grossly exaggerated as it pertains to America. It’s also quite obvious that politicians, American or otherwise have been using this war or terrorism, for most part, to serve their own purposes rather than those of the American people.

    There is not an iota of evidence that Al-Qaeda has relocated to Pakistan, yet it is repeatedly mentioned with such conviction and regularity by the Americans and the Afghans that it is taken as a matter of fact. Isn’t is obvious to you that two adminstrations that have failed to produce the desired results, would lay the blame at the door of someone else’s house which they do not control. Let’s assume that the Pakistani govt. gives them complete freedom to search the FATA region. What do you think will happen when they don’t find OBL and Zawahiri there? ……their pundits will automatically rerout their blame guns on Iran and so on. It’s exactly the same thing that happened with the WMDs: “since we didn’t find them in Iraq, they must have been flown to Syria on a magic carpet”…….and so on.

    I think you guys are trying to be provocative on purpose but IMHO lack perspective on the ground realities and complexities of traditional, heterogenous, cultural societies; not dissimilar to Bush who is bent upon engineering mindsets and political wills of peoples he doesn’t understand.

  18. Aamir Ali says:
    September 4th, 2007 3:51 pm

    Americans are defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan and have now lost their marbles. They believe by bombing Pakistan somehow they will win.

    This war on terror would not have lasted this long if Americans had fought it intelligently.

  19. Pete says:
    September 4th, 2007 4:53 pm

    No offense to you guys, but Obama is right. Your president is weak and your leaders aren’t doing enough to remove Al Qaeda from the border areas. The US military should have infiltrated that area years ago.

    OBAMA 2008!

  20. Aamir Ali says:
    September 4th, 2007 4:57 pm


    You dont know what “do enough” means, its just rhethoric. The US military has failed to defeat terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Obama was trying to make himself sound tough and in doing so disturbed relations between allies. His naivete is on full display.

  21. libertarian says:
    September 4th, 2007 7:23 pm

    Aamir Ali: You dont know what

  22. faraz says:
    September 4th, 2007 11:23 pm

    Akif Nizam, I agree with you it is all blame game. I am not a milltary expert. I am not sure if Pakistan is same to America as Lebenon was to Isreal. If later is case, then no matter our Pakistani leader will claim about independence on FATA, we will get the heat as Lebabnon got but Hizballah was acting from their land. It is just matter of cost-benefit analysis.

    By the way, my first loyality will remain with Pakistan.

  23. Adonis says:
    September 5th, 2007 12:42 am

    If any one else had said this about bombing Pakistan it would not have mattered, but coming from Obama who is so obviously the only ‘sane’ candidate on either side of the US political spectrum it is indeed worrying.

    What seems strange is that no blatant threat of aggression was ever issued against countries which made up the so called ‘axis of evil’. USA never dared boast about attacking Iran or North Korea or Cuba. Iraq was invaded only after its military had been severely weakened due to war with Iran. Afghanistan had been attacked as it had no means to defend itself.

    Therefore, when the US policy makers talk about attacking Pakistan (even Bush refused to rule out that possibility), then obviously they are under the impression that US would not face any significant military opposition.

    It seems strange that they are talking about attacking the sixth biggest country in the world and a nuclear power having a well equipped military of more than half a million men. Either all these politicians are incredibly stupid or they know something that we don’t know.

  24. Afreen says:
    September 5th, 2007 11:59 am

    The comments here by those defending the people who are killing innocent Pakistanis and innocent Muslims in the name of Islam reminds me of the scene in teh movie Khuda ke Leeye where these fanatics are killing other Afghanis and this guy killed by a fundamentalist dies while reciting the kalma. It was a very moving scene, and very sad too. But it seems that there are plenty of people ready to defend those who are killing other Kalma-Go Pakistanis!

  25. Aamir Ali says:
    September 5th, 2007 12:45 pm

    The same can be said of any attack on american soil. as far as what you say if “Semblance of order”, I repeat that you dont know what that means.

    Just rhethoric by Americans who pretend to have solutions.

  26. libertarian says:
    September 5th, 2007 2:21 pm

    Aamir Ali: The same can be said of any attack on american soil.
    Not so. An attack from Germany (as 9/11 was) would not elicit the same response. Men and materials are fungible – planning is what the Yanks are interested.

    as far as what you say if

  27. Barry says:
    September 5th, 2007 9:30 pm

    Haider, whether by design or accident omitted the following important passage from Obama’s speech
    “…Pakistan needs more than F-16s to combat extremism. As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrasas, my Administration will increase America’s commitment. We must help Pakistan invest in the provinces along the Afghan border, so that the extremists’ program of hate is met with one of hope…….” If I were a Pakistani especially from the tribal region, this would give me hope as it suggests peace, development and progress for my sons and daughters.

  28. Aqil Sajjad says:
    September 6th, 2007 9:29 am

    “If I were a Pakistani especially from the tribal region, this would give me hope as it suggests peace, development and progress for my sons and daughters.”

    Barry, similar promises were made to the Afghans and Iraqis. The reconstruction aid that was promised to Afghanistan has not materialized and the situation in both countries and the past record of the US in honouring its promises and commitments does not inspire much confidence in this statement from Mr. Obama. If Obama does come to power and if the US does indeed bring something concrete to improve the lives of empoverished Pakistanis, then it might gradually change some opinions about him.

    For now, the only clear promise from him is that he will use force in the tribal areas. Considering that the British and Russians have both been defeated by these people in the past, and the Pakistani military has itself suffered heavy casualties in its operations there, Mr. Obama and most of his American supporters seem to be under some misconception that the problem has easy solutions. We all owe the Americans a debt of gratitude for working with General Zia and creating this Frankenstein. It won’t go away easily, and scapegoating Pakistan for all the blame is hardly the solution. For a start, the US could at the least have ensured that none of the discredited war lords returned to power after the ouster of Taliban and that there was some semblance of law and order established in that country. A bit of honesty on part of Americans in admiting their own share of the responsibility could be useful. Then if Pakistan is not contributing its share, some of us might be more inclined to understand the kind of statements coming from the rest of the Pakistan bashers.

  29. dawa-i-dil says:
    September 7th, 2007 1:19 am

    Actually ..poor Obama ..has to put a blame of his country’s shameless defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq..and by the grace of god…a ruler like Musharraf …whats the best option o give threats of attacks to pakistan…..but plz…dont bother about it seriously..Pakistan is not Iraq..or Afghanistan..let them try to attack Pakistan…..they will soon get a good lesson…

  30. jalaal says:
    September 10th, 2007 5:53 pm

    US is using Pakistan especially Musharraf as puppet and the thing i hate is how idiot Musharraf is to not realise this.

  31. omer dossani says:
    April 22nd, 2008 6:45 pm

    Excellant article. Very well written. Obama lacks experience and even knowledge. His comments on Pakistani clearly show his in experience. Voting for Hillary!

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