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Obama and Pakistan: Mutual Trust, Respect and Understanding

Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Arena November 3, 2008 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
by Stephanie Valera
5 November 2008

by Nasim Zehra

NEW YORK, November 5, 2008 - Pakistanis grudgingly share the global
excitement of Mr. Obama’s victory.
Grudgingly, because many Pakistanis have not forgotten the
president-elect’s campaign rhetoric of possibly attacking Pakistani
territory to combat terrorism. Pakistanis, who know better the
complexity of the terrorism problem and who bear the high costs of this
violence (in recent years as many as 3,000 military and paramilitary
and many more thousands of civilians have been killed), found Obama’s
resolve to attack their territory both aggressive and naïve.

This notwithstanding, Pakistanis at the same
time hope for and expect Obama, as president, to be more patient, wiser
and more multilateralist in the conduct of US foreign policy. There is
also expectation in Pakistan that behind his combative electioneering
rhetoric exists a more informed outlook that will determine America’s

Many pin their hopes on the wisdom espoused by
one of Obama’s foreign policy advisors, the highly experienced Zbigniew
Brzezinski. Many in Pakistan watched in mid-October Brzezinski’s
interview on the BBC show “Hard Talk,” in which the former National
Security Advisor advised the next US President to be mindful of the
intrinsic importance of a strategic country of 160 million people,
instead of only viewing its significance through the prism of

The aura built up
around America’s first black president, embodying new leadership and
“change,” has given many here hope that Obama will empathize with the
tattered state of Pakistan’s own homeland security. They hope that he
will understand that in some ways Pakistanis feel they are under siege;
it’s a nation that must be supported, not lectured at and threatened.

Obama administration’s Pakistan policy will have to remain mindful of
Pakistan’s legitimate security interests. It must focus on ensuring
internal stability through a stable, functioning democratic system and
an effective writ of the State across the country.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s external
security concerns—in particular its relations with two key neighbors,
Afghanistan and India—must be addressed. While relations with both
neighbors are on the mend, border matters, refugee issues and security
issues with Afghanistan require settlement Pakistanis hope that Obama
will heed the voices of American and NATO generals who are fast
concluding that 70% of Afghanistan’s problems lie within the country;
that there is correlation between an increasingly beleaguered and
controversial Karzai government and the Taliban’s expanding control
over Afghan territory. They resent Washington’s singular focus on
Pakistan being the primary source of Afghanistan’s security situation.

2007, Pakistanis have been targeted by around 90 suicide bombings. They
consider themselves the prime victims of terrorism, no less a
front-line state against it. On the day of Obama’s election, a suicide
bomb attack targeting a security checkpoint in northwestern Pakistan
killed seven Pakistanis. On the same day, in a sign of the clamor among
Pakistanis for stronger government action against the spread of
violence from Lahore (the heart of Pakistan), the Lahore press club
issued a nationwide call against U.S. attacks and against the Taliban.
Such is the complexity of the challenge that Pakistan’s involvement in
the global war on terrorism poses to Pakistan’s democratic government.

with India, understanding is hoped for when it comes to serious
bilateral engagement on the unresolved Kashmir issue. Pakistanis
welcomed Obama’s acknowledgement that its resolution would help to
reduce Pakistan’s militancy problem - one of the last statements Obama
made before ending his campaign. But there is also a list of other
unresolved matters with India, including disputes over Siachen Glacier
and the Sir Creek, matters of overland transit rights to India and the
India-Pakistan pipeline.

Perhaps for Pakistan,
the most significant problem with India is the claim that Pakistan has
not been given its rightful share of the Chenab River waters divided
between the two countries under the Indus Waters Treaty. As Pakistan
deals with these matters bilaterally, it does not expect unsolicited
lecturing from the new U.S. administration.

Obama in office, there is hope that he will place greater emphasis on
soft power in promoting US foreign policy objectives in the region.
Many Pakistanis, especially those living in the NorthWest Frontier
Province--the worst-hit province by terrorism and war--now hope for
fewer US drone attacks on Pakistani territory and a friendlier, more
humane engagement. Perhaps as a sign of this region’s clamor for peace,
last month a group of young students in Peshawar collected two hundred
dollars to contribute to Obama’s election campaign. Their message,
broadcast throughout Pakistan, was: “We are sending Obama this money
for his campaign so that when he becomes president he will not attack
our homeland.”

Pakistanis now eagerly await
change in Washington’s policy towards
their country. With Barack Obama in the White House and a democratic
government in Pakistan, they look forward to greater cooperation within
the framework of genuine dialogue, greater trust and mutual respect.

Nasim Zehra is an Associate Fellow of the Asia Society
and a Fellow of Harvard University Asia Center. Zehra served on the
Pakistan’s Presidential Advisory Committee on Foreign Policy and
National Security from 2000-2002, and in 2005, she was appointed as
Pakistan’s Special Envoy on UN Reforms. She is currently completing her
book From Kargil to the Coup: 40 Days that Shook Pakistan.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Asia Society