Obama's Fine Line in AfPak and Iraq

Too much or too little US involvement could spell disaster for Obama's approach in countries ridden by internal conflict

Much of the focus on the new Obama administration's foreign policy has been about his willingness to talk to his enemies. High-profile diplomatic olive branches have already been offered to Iran, Syria, Russia and Venezuela. Yet questions remain as to his ability to ­influence those countries.

Obama's ability to wield political influence is on show this month in a series of meetings with leaders from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Israel. All cases test the balance between these leaders' national political concerns and their accommodation of US strategic interests.

Wednesday saw the coming together of Obama's "AfPak" strategy with meetings with both Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari. At present the US priority is Pakistan. Obama wants to ensure that Zardari is consistent in taking on the Taliban, whose reach has been steadily eroding Pakistani sovereignty. Zardari, much like his predecessor Musharaff, has overseen a fragmented policy towards the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (Fata) of making concessions for peace one day and attacking them the next.

Zardari arguably went one step further when he conceded sharia law to the Swat valley. Today, 40,000 refugees are on the move in Pakistan as the army prepares to invade part of its own territory. With Obama placing so much emphasis on Pakistan, any ensuing bloodbath in the fight to retake Swat may be an early blow to his foreign policy credentials.

The US special envoy Richard Holbrooke spoke of putting "heavy pressure... on our friends in Pakistan", yet it remains to be seen if the civilian leadership in Islamabad has either the ability or the desire to deliver.

This is the crucial challenge to the American approach. In both the "AfPak" and Iraqi theatre, the US is fighting counter-insurgencies. According to its own recently published field manual on the subject "counter-insurgencies... use all instruments of national power to sustain the established or emerging government and reduce the likelihood of another crisis emerging". Therefore no matter how well or hard the US military fights, its success will ultimately be shaped largely by the competency of the governments in Islamabad, Kabul and Baghdad.

In turn these governments may be undermined by pressure from Washington that undercuts their domestic support. President Karzai appears to have retained Washington's backing despite being heavily criticised for his support for the law allowing rape within marriage and his subsequent choice of former warlord Muhammad Qasim Fahim as a vice presidential candidate. These decisions were described by Human Rights Watch as "a terrible step backwards for Afghanistan", yet were considered canny domestic politics by those closer to Karzai. Aware of his precarious sitting in the eyes of the Obama administration, Karzai has also been fairly muted in his response to the killings of Afghan civilians in US airstrikes -- once again a position that severely weakens his claim to domestic legitimacy.

In Iraq, meanwhile, relations with Prime Minister Maliki are also under strain. Time magazine described Obama as "doubling down" in Afghanistan, taking attention away from the precarious situation in Iraq.

Focus on "AfPak" comes as the US is reducing troop numbers in Iraq and preparing to hand over urban control to the Iraqis. Deputy assistant defence secretary Colin Kahl warned that "we are likely to see the ebb and flow of violence as our posture changes, and as the enemy tries to probe the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces or demonstrate that they're still relevant".

Yet much of the recent spike in violence is linked to the inability of Maliki's government to effectively bring the Sunni insurgency into the government. The New York Times last week blamed the "failure of Iraq's Shia-led government" for the increasing death toll. Whether Maliki's government can rise above sectarian and factional interests to act as a national unity government or not is critical to both the short-term future of Iraq and protecting the successes of the new US counter-insurgency strategy.

The recent spate of bombings has been targeting Shia civilian areas. Major General David Perkins, the top US military spokesman in Iraq, tried to pour water on events on Sunday, stating that al-Qaida-linked insurgents were "not accomplishing their purpose, which is to generate ethno-sectarian violence... and chaos". Yet fears of a cycle of retaliatory violence were raised when three days later a large explosion ripped through a market in the largely Sunni Dora district of Baghdad.

Policy based largely on buttressing weak governments in countries ridden by internal conflict is a risky business, much of the success or failure of Obama's approach will be defined by his ability to walk the fine line between too much and too little involvement in the affairs of US allies.