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 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 choices.

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 Afghanistan.

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.

The 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.

Since 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.

Similarly, 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.

With 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