Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rhetoric and reality

Graham Usher in Islamabad explains why Pakistanis were so under-whelmed by Barack Obama's appeal to the Muslim world

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Pakistani displaced boys play next to their tents in Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar

Barack Obama's speech to the Islamic world from Cairo on 4 June has been hailed as "historic" and a "milestone" in American-Muslim relations. Zardari -- leader of the second largest Muslim nation -- said the American president had "effectively and irrevocably dismissed the myth of the clash of cultures and civilisations" and "contributed immensely to the stature and standing of the United States in the Muslim world."

In this -- as in much else -- the Pakistani president is out of joint with his people. Polls show a solid and enduring majority of Pakistanis want their government to have no truck with America's losing war in Afghanistan. Obama's "new beginning between the United States and Muslims" made not an iota of difference to that sentiment.

Pakistan's Islamic parties said the speech was "hypocritical". Its liberal intelligentsia -- voiced through the English language media -- said although Obama's oratory was sublime, it remained "mere words". And the masses -- particularly those toiling with the immense displacement caused by Pakistan's latest war against Islamic militancy in Swat -- shrugged their shoulders. "America's war" may now have become theirs, but Obama's rhetoric was still a foreign language.

Such indifference is interesting. Obama has been adept in persuading many in the West that Al-Qaeda and Taliban "havens" on the Afghan- Pakistan borderlands pose a mortal threat not only to America and Afghanistan but to nuclear tipped Pakistan as well. "Af-Pak" is the cornerstone of his foreign policy, occupying a far more pivotal position than resolution of the Arab- Israeli conflict, Cairo's oratory notwithstanding.

Yet it is precisely in South Asia that people see more continuity than "change" in Obama's outreach: if not with the imperial hubris of George Bush's first term, then certainly with the imperial realism of the second. This was why most Pakistanis -- and many Afghans -- were so unimpressed by Cairo. They had heard Obama before but in a Texan drawl.

For example: there was his insistence that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, was a war of "necessity". But in the Muslim world all America's wars are wars of choice. Afghanistan was actually a war of revenge for 9/11 but dressed up as an exercise in nation building.

It is now moot whether combined pressure from Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries may have been more successful in compelling the Taliban to give up Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden rather than American driven policies of regime change. What is clear, eight years on, is that Bin Laden remains at large, Al-Qaeda intact and the Taliban not only resurgent in Afghanistan but insurgent across large parts of northwest Pakistan. In invading a failed state America has succeeded in destabilising a nuclear one.

There were other sins of omission. Obama said: "Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan". But he failed to say that those troops are about to be swelled by 21,000 more, a Bush-designed "surge" many fear will augment civilian casualties in Afghanistan and further disrupt the Pakistan borderlands, both fertile grounds for Taliban and Al-Qaeda recruitment.

Obama stressed -- unlike his predecessor -- his administration understood that "military power alone" would not solve the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "That is why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced."

But he failed to acknowledge his administration's vow to also continue CIA drone attacks inside Pakistan that -- according to Pakistani counts -- have killed 14 Al-Qaeda commanders and 700 Pakistani civilians in the last three years. More than any other issue it is the drones that make Pakistanis such an American-phobic people. No amount of cash will band-aid them.

Finally, there was the matter of nukes. Obama said America was against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons because "a nuclear arms race in the Middle East could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path". Yet he failed to mention that America's preferential 2008 nuclear deal with India -- which his administration upholds -- has already spurred a nuclear arms race in South Asia, with Islamabad reportedly augmenting its nuclear stockpile to "balance" Delhi's.

Rightly or wrongly, Pakistanis believe a different measure is used for Muslim states that have or may seek nuclear weapons (like Pakistan and Iran) as opposed to non-Muslim states (like India and Israel) that already have them. And while Obama's "commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons" is laudable it would carry more weight if disarmament were to begin with states that actually have nuclear arsenals (like Israel) rather than states that potentially have them (like Iran).

"It's a change of tone not a change of substance," said Mushahid Hussein, a Pakistan opposition senator. "When it comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Obama seems to be sticking to the policies and agendas of the previous US government."

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