This article on President Obama’s failure at managing the U.S.-Pakistani relationship by Kapil Komireddi was recommended and endorsed by David Frum, so I gave it a close read, and I was surprised to find it consisting of mostly hysterical ad hominem bunk. The central conceit seems to be that the Obama administration is omnipotent, yet instead of using this omnipotence to help usher in a strong civilian democratic rule in Pakistan, Obama insists on using it to cosign Pakistan’s backslide into military authoritarianism. The failure of all former U.S. presidents to meaningfully change the balance of power between militarists and civilians in Pakistan is not mentioned in the piece.
Komireddi spends half of his piece blaming Obama for the recent forced resignation of Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani. It is true that Haqqani was a great champion of civilian democratic rule in Pakistan, and during his time in Washington he was often the only bright spot surrounding the fraught U.S.-Pakistani relationship. I’m sure the generals hated him. But unfortunately he was not the vanguard of some imminent Pakistani Spring in which the liberal secular pro-Western democrats would assert themselves and ride the army and the ISI and the Islamists out of town once and for all.
That’s because for all his personal and professional attributes, Haqqani as ambassador didn’t mean that Pakistan had civilian rule. As even Komireddi tellingly admits, "[Haqqani's] forced resignation puts an end to the pretence of civilian rule in Pakistan." (italics mine) It was pretense, and it’s always been pretense. The generals were always in charge. This is tragic and lamentable but it’s not Barack Obama’s fault.
Komireddi accuses the U.S. of marginalizing Haqqani due to his outspoken support for civilian rule and for curbing the influence of the military.
Why would the White House choose to belittle a man championing civilian rule in Pakistan? Isn’t that also the objective of the Obama administration? The answer increasingly appears to be no.
Nonsense. The U.S. loves Haqqani’s peaceful democratic vision for Pakistan, but because that vision does not accurately reflect all parts of the government he was supposed to represent, his effectiveness as ambassador was somewhat attenuated. It would be a lovely world in which Husain Haqqani was in charge of civilian and military policy in Pakistan. But it’s not our world, and it’s no help for the U.S. to pretend that he actually had the ear and the confidence of the true power-brokers in Pakistan.
Komireddi undermines his own thesis about Obama’s unique role in emboldening Pakistani perfidy when he diagnoses the real source of Pakistan’s problems, which, shockingly, predate Barack Obama’s presidency:
Since the 1950s, when Gen. Ayub Khan mounted the first military coup, Pakistan’s army has etiolated the country’s evolution in every imaginable sense. Rooted in a culture of grievance and malevolence that is the foundational basis of Pakistan, the army has waged wars against India, suffused young minds with a fervor for jihad, sponsored terrorism, spread xenophobia and racism, carried out genocide against millions of its own citizens, stolen and smuggled nuclear secrets, foisted the vile Taliban regime upon the defenseless people of Afghanistan, and assumed complete ownership of Pakistan.
Those sound like really tough problems! Yet, Komireddi thinks that these sixty years of entrenched military rule buttressed by Islamic extremism, nuclear promiscuity, and terrorism sponsorship; in fact a military rule so entrenched as to be said without exaggeration to have "assumed complete ownership of Pakistan," could have been undone by a U.S. president throwing his rhetorical support behind a particularly talented and sympathetic Pakistani ambassador! Boy we really missed an opportunity there!
Well to be fair, he has other ideas for how President Obama could have won the day if he wasn’t so willfully in cahoots with Pakistan’s military. He could have "corraled the army with fresh ultimatums" following the embarassing revelation that Osama bin Laden was hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad. Komireddi does not mention that in the wake of the bin Laden operation the U.S. withheld almost $1 billion in military aid to Pakistan. Yet the relationship has only deteriorated further since then. I don’t know how Komireddi is so sure that more and stronger U.S. ultimatums would miraculously produce a more compliant Pakistani military, and one that suddenly stops caring about hating India or wanting control over Afghanistan. Komireddi’s ideas come straight from the toughness-seriousness-boldness school of intractable problem solving.
Nonetheless, he is certainly right that the Pakistani military and ISI’s double-dealing with the Taliban and complicity in violence against Americans in Afghanistan is scandalous. As to the former, Pakistan has seen a strategic interest in supporting the Afghan Taliban for a long time. Not even ten years of war has changed this calculus. Ten more years won’t either. At least the killing of American troops will be mitigated by the upcoming drawdown. But that is bad news according to Komireddi:
Then, in a craven abdication of American responsibility to the citizens of Afghanistan, Obama talked about the need for nation-building at home. […]
As the fighters currently enjoying Pakistani hospitality in the country’s northwest make their way back into Afghanistan [following the U.S. withdrawal], the gains made over the last decade will wither away. Thus will the tremendous sacrifices, of both American troops and Afghan civilians, be honored.
Ah yes, the only way to honor sacrifice is with unending sacrifice. That’s a tidy aphorism but a really terrible basis for military strategy, and an immoral one. One may disagree with the administration’s decision to bring the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan to a close after ten years. But I’m curious: what would acquit Obama of the charge of craven irresponsibility? Another troop surge? Another trillion dollars? Escalating the current nebulous proxy war with Pakistan into a real war? If your principles of justice and sacrifice require you to advocate embroiling America in a hot war with an major Asian nuclear power, you need new principles.
Are there things the U.S. could do to help foster a less military-centric ruling order in Pakistan? I don’t know, I’m sure there’s something. But in the post-9/11 period, two successive administrations, with opposite foreign policy visions and opposite rhetorical styles, have been unable to do so. I find it very likely that a long string of future administrations will encounter the same difficulty. Then, as now, it will not be Barack Obama’s fault.
Say it with me Mr. Komireddi, slowly and tearfully, Good Will Hunting style: it’s not Barack Obama’s fault.