A Silk Road to Obama's Success

03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the first week of his inauguration, President Barack Obama acknowledged the urgency of the situation in South West Asia. He not only convened the first National Security Council meeting on Pakistan and Afghanistan, considered a "single theater of war," but also appointed Richard Holbrooke special envoy to the two countries.

During the same week, the U.S. military bombed targets in Pakistan, killing nearly 20 people. While the White House has declined to comment on whether Obama himself authorized the strike or was involved in its final planning, the strike demonstrated the new administration's alacrity in taking whatever steps needed, irrespective of its stated deference to diplomatic niceties.

Based on the policy statements made by Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other members of the foreign policy team, the new administration has set itself three specific goals:

1. Using all the elements of power - diplomacy, development and defense -- to eliminate al-Qaida, the Taliban and other violent extremists, including Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan and Pakistan's northwest provinces.

2. Preventing Pakistan's nuclear arms from falling into the hands of radical Islamic forces, domestic and foreign.

3. Promoting democracy and developmental efforts in Pakistan in an effort to stabilize the state and society.

The Obama administration seeks to accomplish these goals by the following means:

1. Augmenting the existing 32,000 American and 32,000 NATO and coalition troops in Afghanistan with 30,000 more American troops.

2. Adapting and implementing the Iraq surge strategy in Afghanistan.

3. Intensifying attacks against al-Qaida and the Taliban in the tribal areas straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

4. Increasing humanitarian and developmental assistance to Pakistan and making military aid conditional on Islamabad's cooperation and initiative in the war against terrorism.

5. Mediating and promoting a peace process between Pakistan and India to resolve the Kashmir conflict so that Islamabad can focus more on the situation in the northwest.

The question is how will these "ends and means" play out in the respective countries. First, the exit of President Bush, who was seen as anti-Islam and too pro-Israel and pro-India, gives the people and powers that be in Pakistan and Afghanistan an opportunity to asses the new administration afresh.

Notwithstanding his statements during the campaign -- that he would not hesitate to violate the sovereignty of Pakistan in the pursuit of terrorists -- there can be no denying that Obama enjoys greater goodwill in that country than many of his recent predecessors.

His ethnic background and the fact that Obama visited Pakistan during his student days and still has enduring friendships with Pakistanis he knew from then, might resonate well with a people who have come to feel that they were unjustly stigmatized by the American leadership. It is also possible that this popular goodwill might rein in the terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists from their anti-American campaigns, at least for the time being.

The ruling class in Pakistan, too, having become a target of al-Qaida and the Taliban, may be more amenable now to exploring new ways of strengthening ties with the U.S., whose continued largess is necessary for its political survival. The unprecedented overtures Islamabad made toward New Delhi, at the prodding of Washington, with regard to the question of complicity of its citizens in the recent Mumbai terror attacks, could signal a more accommodating disposition of the new Pakistan government.

While the conditions seem conducive for renewed American efforts in the region, there are far too many entrenched interests, issues and actors that preclude their success. First, there are limits to the conditions that Washington could place on Pakistan to ensure its cooperation in its fight against "militants," a term Obama prefers to use. They cannot go as far as to risk alienating the Pakistani military, which not only controls the country's nuclear weapons but also makes sure the Pakistani state does not collapse to the detriment of the entire region.

In other words, the mutual dependence of the U.S. and the Pakistani military, and the attendant state of constant bargaining, militates against dramatic breakthroughs. Besides, Obama may not be able to deliver the ultimate prize that is most likely to induce complete cooperation from the Pakistani military: Kashmir.

Going by what he said soon after the November election, Obama, too, appears to harbor ambitions of resolving the Kashmir conflict, not unlike his Democratic predecessors since President Kennedy. In a series media interviews, Obama said America should try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that Pakistan can "stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants" on its western borders.

Of course, from the time of transition to inauguration, Obama seemed to have already tempered his ambitions when he reversed his decision to include India in Holbrooke's itinerary. But if the new U.S. plan for defeating terrorism and stabilizing Pakistan still hinges on resolving the Kashmir crisis, now would not be premature to declare its failure.

Even assuming the improbable, that any coalition-based weak central government in New Delhi would agree to formalizing the existing Line of Control in Kashmir as the official border between India and Pakistan, which most experts agree is the only practical solution, neither the Pakistani government nor the military will risk even discussing such a plan.

In fact, starting any negotiations on Kashmir will only bring fundamentalist Islamic parties to the fore in Pakistani politics, something that the U.S. would regret much more so than it does facilitating the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Ironically, the Obama administration seems oblivious of the only option it has to solve the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan without broadening the crisis -- involving China in the conflict resolution strategy. Here are some reasons why it will work:

1. China and Pakistan have long-standing strategic, security and economic ties. China has untapped clout with the Pakistani establishment, considering that it sees Beijing as the only guarantor against India's hegemony in the region.

2. There are no political risks for either the Pakistani military or the political class in accepting Chinese mediation.

3. China has tremendous stake in arresting the tide of Islam spilling over into its central Asian rim and would be willing to play a positive role without seeking to alter the regional balance of power.

4. China also enjoys influence with Iran, which can play a crucial role in containing the Taliban.

5. Unlike in the past, India would not be averse to a Chinese role in stabilizing Pakistan. Over the past several years, there has been a convergence of India-China economic interests, which culminated in a strategic entente premised on inevitable interdependence.

What is therefore needed is a new Obama doctrine that recognizes the limits of American diplomacy and military power and seeks to resolve culturally sensitive conflicts by harnessing the resources of allies outside the European fold, who have similar, if not equal, stakes in the emerging world order.

Sunil Adam is the editor of "The Indian American," a general-interest magazine published from New York. He can be reached at sunil@theindianamerican.com