Saturday, March 6, 2010

Redirecting the war on terror

The war on terror during President Bush’s office has taken menacing overtones — as though it is directed against Islam and is a clash of civilisations. Both candidates, especially Obama, are credited with strong intellectual capability and may revise this policy to win back the confidence of Muslims

Presidential elections in the United States in November 2008 will bring in new leadership and administration to power in Washington. Irrespective of the winner — Barack Obama or John McCain — it is clear that the global war on terror will remain among the highest priorities for the US. Other areas, like the economic crisis, a resurgent Russia, an ascending China and a defiant Iran, are also pertinent and will need to be addressed.

From the presidential debates, there appears to be a bipartisan consensus on the war on terror, and no radical change in direction and policy is expected, at least initially. There could be stylistic and nuanced changes in approach, and a possible rearrangement of priorities. Al Qaeda and the growing network of radical Islamist organisations, whose capabilities and support is increasing in soft Muslim states, would be the prime focus.

The current administration and both presidential candidates claim that Pakistan’s tribal belt poses the greatest threat to the US and the world. They have repeatedly expressed fears that militants operating autonomously in the tribal belt are capable of launching terrorist attacks. Obama has been more explicit in stating that he will attack hideouts in Pakistan if there is actionable intelligence and the Pakistani government is incapable or unwilling to act. McCain, however, has been more discreet and diplomatic, but his policy is no different.

They will continue to pressurise Pakistan to be more aggressive towards the militants and deny them safe haven. The military and the ISI will remain under pressure to not protect militant organisations; the perception being that some of these radical groups are protégés of Pakistani intelligence agencies.

The fast growing influence of the Taliban and affiliated groups in Pakistan is a source of great concern for the incoming American leadership. Americans perceive Pakistan as a major Muslim country that is densely populated, strategically located and is a nuclear power. If Pakistan fails to stabilise and the Pak-Afghan border turns into a protracted battle zone, there will be an immediate and adverse impact on South and Central Asia as well as the Middle East.

Policies adopted by the next American president on major issues affected the Muslim world will be crucial in reducing terrorism. These issues include: settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; US attitude towards Iran, Syria and Lebanon; and American insensitivities towards Islamic culture.

Obama has gone out of his way to please the Jewish community by reassuring them of full political support to protect Israel’s security. In his choice of Senator Joe Biden as vice president, apart from other considerations, Biden’s proximity to Israel and the Jewish community was probably a major factor. Obama has assured the Jews that Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel eternally, a very strong commitment even by American standards, going beyond what any US president or official has ever stated.

The genesis of terrorism in Muslim countries finds its roots in the injustices committed against the Palestinians. The equitable resolution of this conflict is the only way of countering terrorism. From the statements of the presidential candidates, that does not seem to be the objective.

Arab and Muslim countries empathise with the sufferings and aspirations of the Palestinians. The US identifies itself completely with Israel. It is doubtful if the new occupant of the White House would bring about any fundamental shift in this one-sided policy.

To seriously address the Palestinian problem, the next US president will have to take it up within a few months of assuming office. Deferring it to the end of the term will invariably make the task of effective American involvement impossible due to the Jewish factor in US elections.

Peaceful resolution of the current US-Iran impasse over nuclear weapons would be another significant breakthrough. With respect to Iran and Pakistan, the US applies different standards as compared to Israel and India.

Obama has said that he will engage Iran, but is likely to take a less aggressive attitude towards the issue. There is a better appreciation in the Obama camp of the role Iran can play in the region, especially in the context of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. McCain, however, is taking a more hawkish stand on Iran.

Similarly, the highly exceptional US policy towards India is likely to continue. The US-India nuclear deal and a host of strategic and defence agreements will be implemented faithfully, given bipartisan support for India.

On the other hand, the policy of denial of civil nuclear energy to Pakistan is also likely to continue. Strict scrutiny on proliferation issues will remain in place.

Obama’s current statements notwithstanding, his main election plank has been his push for ‘change’. Globally, too, there is yearning for new leadership that can work together on a host of serious security and non-security global threats. If Obama is able to bring about a change in the grand American strategy from unilateralism to multilateralism, it would help win back the confidence of the international community. Just as individual countries need public support to win a national war, cooperation and support is necessary to fight militancy at the global level as well.

Irrespective of any change in the grand strategy, it can be safely assumed that both McCain and Obama will pursue a more cooperative and multilateral approach in fighting the war on terror.

They may refurbish America’s image in the Muslim world by decommissioning the Guantanamo facility. It is possible that the entire semantics of the situation may change, with the terms ‘war on terror’ and ‘axis of evil’ replaced with others. Already, Britain and other countries have dropped this terminology.

The war on terror, as run by the Bush administration, has taken menacing overtones, as if it is directed against Islam and is based on a clash of civilisations. Both candidates, especially Obama, are credited with strong intellectual capability and may revise this policy to win back the confidence of Muslims.

In the event that the winner of the November 4 polls continues with the current policy in Afghanistan with minor variations, then the possibility of withdrawal of US and NATO forces would only arise in the face of a serious military and political setback.

Notwithstanding America’s current decline, it is the one nation with comprehensive power. So if it were to have a leader who is prepared to work with its allies and most of the world, it is possible that the war on terror may be revised, with stability brought back to the world order.

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