So the first U.S. presidential debate just ended, and initial post-debate polls have indicated that it was a victory, albeit a narrow one, for Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama. However, as is now expected in a debate on U.S. foreign policy, the question of Pakistan was a source of disagreement between the candidates. So what was said?
Sen. Obama took issue with the current level of troops in Iraq, asserting the need to send at least two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan to counter the growing militant threat in the region. While discussing a strategic shift towards Afghanistan, Obama also talked about the need to deal with Pakistan, since both the Taliban and Al Qaeda have established safe havens in the northwest areas. According to Obama, the U.S. has given Pakistan $10 billion in military aid and assistance, “and they haven’t done what needs to be done to get rid of those safe havens.”
Republican candidate Sen. John McCain shot back, “If you’re going to point a gun at someone, you better be ready to pull the trigger…and I’m not ready to threaten Pakistan.” The presidential candidate accused Obama of threatening military strikes against Pakistan, and noted he [McCain] would cooperate with the Pakistani people, since “he knows how to work them.” Although McCain called for a new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan that would mirror the ‘surge’ in Iraq, it would inherently require more troops on the ground.
In his rebuttal, Obama asserted that “no one talked about attacking Pakistan.” Instead, he reaffirmed his stance that, “If Pakistan is unable to attack [Al Qaeda and Taliban targets] then we should take them out.” The problem with our past strategy with Pakistan, he noted, was that Washington “coddled Musharraf,” in turn alienating the Pakistani population. Ultimately, Obama added, the United States “lost legitimacy in Pakistan” as a result of such an approach.
At the peripheral level, John McCain took a much softer approach on Pakistan, emphasizing that aggressive statements about U.S. attacks against Pakistan are counter-productive and risk alienating the Pakistani population and government. He spent the majority of the time, however, criticizing Obama’s “hawkish” stance on the country. Barack Obama reiterated his previous stance, asserting that if Pakistan wouldn’t go after AQ and Taliban militants, and they were in U.S. sight, they would take them out.
Reading between the lines, it is significant that McCain’s constant criticism of Obama’s stance on taking out militant targets in safe havens equated to “attacking Pakistan.” During the debate, Obama made no mention of an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty, on its people, or on the government. He asserted that U.S. attacks on militant targets would only occur if actionable intelligence existed and the Pakistani government was unwilling to cooperate. Due to high-profile attacks, like the recent Marriott Hotel bombing, it is increasingly within Islamabad’s national interest to counter this militant threat; not to appease U.S. demands, but rather to protect its own civilians and take ownership of the war at hand.
Regardless of political posturing, the U.S. will always act according to its national security interests. If Coalition forces are being killed by militants in cross-border attacks, it inherently threatens U.S. security; that would be true for any country. The difference in this presidential election is that Obama openly acknowleges this reality, while McCain merely chooses to equate it to an attack on Pakistani sovereignty. Ultimately, however, there isn’t an easy answer to this issue, and the next president will be forced to respond to the realities on the ground. Therefore, it may come down to how they tend to respond to major issues rather than their current political stances – will they assess the situation from all sides and exhaust all options before deciding on a strategy? Or will they make a rash decision because they believe they “must not blink” when it comes to matters of national security? For the sake of Pakistan, I pray that it’s the former rather than the latter. [Image from the Washington Post]