DAWN - Opinion; January 20, 2009

Published January 20, 2009

Obama’s Afghan strategy

By Shahid Javed Burki

WHY would the United States commit itself to being in Afghanistan in the long run? The Afghans have shown time and again, most recently when the Soviet Union tried to occupy their country, that they have zero tolerance for the presence of foreign troops on their soil.

This is the case even when the troops have come in with the consent of the government in Kabul. Welcome has also run out for the Americans and Nato. The increased violence directed at the forces from these sources is the result of the increasing unpopularity of the government headed by President Hamid Karzai. Why would Washington take the risk of losing its soldiers and cultivating extreme hostility by staying on in Afghanistan? Are their strategic interests for America to protect that would justify taking these risks? These questions and the answers to them have great significance for Pakistan.

We should not seek answers to these questions from the rhetoric of the campaign when as candidate Barack Obama promised that if elected his administration would give a high priority to winning the war in Afghanistan. He had opposed the attack on Iraq even before he appeared on the national political scene. Once there, he articulated a position that contributed to his success in the elections. He said that President George W. Bush had wasted American blood and treasure on a war that did not have any justification. He promised to pull out American troops from Iraq and send them to Afghanistan where Washington was fighting a just war. That was, however, then. Will he persist in this approach in the presidency?

America has obvious strategic interests in Iraq. The country has oil; it sits on one of the largest reserves of oil in the world. It could become a swing producer of oil, stabilising the price of the precious commodity on which the health of the American economy depends. Iraq is also important for securing Israel, a country that weighs heavily in America’s strategic interest. And, if America succeeded in bringing some form of democracy to Iraq, it could achieve what former President Bush had said was an important mission for America. Washington does not have interests in Afghanistan that would parallel those it has in Iraq.

It became clear as the period of transition for president-elect Obama neared the end that his advisors were likely to rethink the Afghan policy once the new administration was in office. While, over the short term, the decision taken by the former administration to augment the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan by sending an additional 32,000 soldiers and to add the same number from other Nato members would be implemented, and while some $2.6bn was to be spent on civil works to accommodate the enlarged force, this effort was not to be equated with the surge in Iraq that paid off by reducing the number of American casualties and the level of violence in that country.

President Obama had declared in a wide-ranging TV interview during the transition period that he was in favour of a multi-pronged approach in Afghanistan. “We haven’t seen the kind of infrastructure improvements; we haven’t seen the security improvements; we haven’t seen the reduction in narco-trafficking; we haven’t seen a reliance on the rule of law in Afghanistan that would make people feel confident that the central government can, in fact, deliver on its promises. We have to ramp up our development approach,” he told the interviewer. He was clearly showing great frustration at the prevailing situation in Afghanistan.

This reading of the Afghan situation was reflected in the mainstream American press that has carried a number of prominent stories on the dysfunctional government in Kabul that had been unable to extend its presence much beyond Kabul, had diminishing support of the people, had done little to improve the lives of the citizenry and was also becoming increasingly corrupt. There appeared to be a growing fear that the situation was increasingly coming to resemble the one that existed when the Taliban established control in the country. There was the fear that if some of the problems faced by the people were not tackled the Taliban would once again be received with open arms.

The incoming administration during the transition phase was flooded with position papers not only on Afghanistan but also Pakistan. These papers were written by both the think-tanks as well as the members of the departing Bush administration. Given all the advice he had received, Obama set out a very limited objective aimed at ensuring that Afghanistan was “not used as a base to launch attacks against the United States”. Nation-building was not one of the objectives that the administration was likely to follow.

Retired Marine Gen James L. Jones, the new national security adviser in the Obama administration, had done a study for the Atlantic Council in which he concluded that “the international community is not winning in Afghanistan”. It was unlikely that he would advise that the American government follow an entirely military strategy in the country, especially when it was shown by experience that the use of force in Afghanistan or neighbouring areas in Pakistan resulted in the movement of people across the porous frontier.

A policy that committed a significant amount of resources for developing the tribal belt on both sides of the border seemed to be high on the priority list of Obama. This was confirmed by the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, during her confirmation hearing before the US Senate.

This approach also had the support of Vice-President Joe Biden who had sponsored a bill in the Senate to allocate $1.5bn a year for economic and social development in Pakistan. His original intention was to have the bill approved by the two houses of US Congress and sent to President Bush for his signature before the elections. That the co-sponsor of the bill was Republican Senator Richard Lugar gave it good chance for success. But the effort was postponed. It is likely to be revived again perhaps under the sponsorship of John Kerry who has succeeded Biden as the chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee.

According to one well-informed analyst, “the parameters of a new strategy are unlikely to emerge before early April when Afghanistan and Pakistan will top the agenda at a Nato summit in France. By presenting its Nato allies with a comprehensive plan and demonstrating the leadership to implement it, Obama hopes to capitalise on his overwhelming popularity in Europe with request for increased military and financial contributions.” Islamabad would do well to keep on top of these developments.

Revival of the commissioner

By Zubair K. Bhatti

ALL provincial governments, especially Punjab, appear keen on reviving the office of the commissioner. The Sharif government has invested a lot of political capital — and hope — in this move.

The Land Revenue Act has been amended to grant commissioners powers of members of the Board of Revenue. Administrative instructions have been issued to districts to seek guidance and direction from the new office. More interestingly, commissioners have been delegated powers of the chief minister under the Local Government Ordinance to direct district nazims.

The grafting of this office on to the current administrative architecture connotes a major deviation from the devolution plan. For example, under the 1979 local bodies ordinance, commissioners were empowered to reject the budget of local bodies within the division. Under the Local Government Ordinance 2001, on the other hand, districts were designed to be autonomous in every manner with minimum control and oversight of the provincial government. Commissioners (and the corresponding set of line department offices in the division), the main instrument of the provincial government vis-à-vis districts, therefore had no place.

Prior to the 2008 elections, a chief minister faced three choices in running the day-to-day affairs of government. He could choose to live with the design and spirit of the devolution plan and not interfere in the domain of elected nazims. He could choose to share power with the nazims — recognising their general suzerainty in districts while reserving the right to issue overriding administrative instructions to the district bureaucracy. Or he could choose to ignore nazims and run the government directly through the civil service (with inputs from legislators).

No chief minister opted for the first course of action. During the Musharraf days, all had to (reluctantly) co-habit with the nazims. With his paternal personal interest in devolution, there was no other choice available. The Shahbaz Sharif government — unhappy with the PML-Q nazims, keen to improve the quality of services, eager to impose its will on the province, anxious to satisfy the immense desire of voters for improved governance — has chosen the third route.

The Punjab government had to choose the last option. The first choice would not deliver given some fundamental flaws in the design of the devolution plan, the imperatives of the political economy and the understandable impatience with the long-time horizon in which devolution may, if ever, bring positive results. The hybrid control of the second choice, shorn of all strengths, had failed to perform both for districts and the province.

What role would the commissioners perform? How would provincial governments benefit? Commissioners would restore some sanity to the span of control of the chief secretary, the senior-most bureaucrat in a province; the devolution plan saw, for example, the Punjab chief secretary directly leading some 30-plus district coordination officers (DCO), senior-most bureaucratic title in the district, without any intermediary, a clear recipe for poor supervision and communication. Secretaries of large departments like health, education and agriculture were similarly handicapped in extracting compliance from district officials because of the impossibly large span of control.

This absence of provincial government supervision was indeed a great success of the devolution design. According to the fundamentally revised architecture of administration, policy guidance and day-to-day supervision was supposed to be provided by the district elected leadership. Unfortunately, the vast majority of DCOs didn’t receive any positive supervision from the nazims (or the zila council). As long as a DCO didn’t clash with the mostly narrow interests of the district nazim, including collusive corruption in many cases, he was free to set his own agenda and work at his own pace. Some worked hard. Many didn’t. Most citizens suffered.

Commissioners would fill this critical command and control gap between the provincial government and districts. They would better monitor and execute key campaigns of the provincial government — from better delivery of health services to the timely provision of urea. They would better coordinate large development projects. They would redress grievances against the order of the DCO, mediate in local administrative and political disputes, communicate local problems to the provincial government, and, most importantly, monitor the performance of district officials.

Importantly, communication with the provincial government, especially on major law and order issues, would be less hurried with more dialogue. Faced with pressing law and order challenges on a daily basis, the NWFP was the first provincial government to introduce the office of the regional coordination officer, an embryonic commissioner, to improve interface of the provincial government with the district machinery of the border districts.

The Punjab government has made a good start by posting some quality officers as commissioners. Discussions are also under way to grant them more powers — transfers of officials within the division, approval of development schemes — to give their office more muscle. Yet challenges remain that would sorely test the efficacy of this reform.

Some nazims have coalesced to fight in the superior courts the right of the commissioner to supervise and direct the nazim (or the district bureaucracy). Donors like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, who had heavily invested in devolution and civil society will be unhappy with major reversals. Some in the bureaucracy are also unhappy, seeing this as a sinister power-grabbing move by the district management groups. Also, this office, a patchwork on devolution plan, may not achieve, in its present or even an augmented form, the momentum and the prestige that it enjoyed in its earlier role.

More significant impediments for commissioners — and any well-meaning chief minister — would be the modern challenges of public administration. Morale of government employees remains low because of worsening pay, social prestige and promotion prospects. Interference by legislators and party bigwigs, though relatively contained in Punjab, continues unabated. Corruption remains rampant.

Yet this reform is needed to strengthen the spine of the administration. And creative patchwork is the only answer — until March 2009 when the constitutional requirement for presidential assent would lapse enabling provincial governments to amend the Local Government Ordinance. Is the revival of the deputy commissioner next?


Israeli tail, American dog

By Gwynne Dyer

EHUD Olmert really doesn’t care any more. He is serving out his time as Israel’s prime minister until next month’s election, but then he will spend a long time fighting the corruption charges that forced him to resign, and he won’t be going back into politics afterwards even if he wins. Not after two bloody, futile wars in three years, he won’t. So he’s very angry, and he tells it like it is.

On Jan 8, he had a problem. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was going to vote for a United Nations Security Council resolution that called on both Israel and its Palestinian enemy, Hamas, to accept a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, she had been largely responsible for writing it, and Olmert was furious. He wanted more time to hammer Hamas, so he phoned up George W. Bush and yanked on his choke-chain.

According to Olmert’s account of what happened, given in a speech on Jan 13 in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, “I said, ‘Get me President Bush on the phone’. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said, ‘I don’t care: I have to talk to him now’. They got him off the podium, brought him to another room, and I spoke to him.

“I told him, ‘You can’t vote in favour of this resolution.’ He said, ‘Listen, I don’t know about it. I didn’t see it. I’m not familiar with the phrasing’.” So Prime Minister Olmert told President Bush: “I’m familiar with it. You can’t vote in favour.”Bush did as he was told: “Mr Bush gave an order to Secretary of State Rice and she did not vote in favour of it — a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organised, and manoeuvred for,” said Olmert triumphantly. “She was left pretty shamed, and abstained on a resolution she arranged.” The Security Council passed the resolution 14-0, but the United States, its principal author, abstained.

Senior Israeli politicians are usually much more circumspect about the nature of their relationship with the occupants of the White House, and Olmert’s colleagues were appalled that his anger had led him to speak so plainly. It is one thing to talk to the president of the United States that way. It is quite another thing to reveal to the American public that Israeli leaders talk to US presidents in that tone of voice.The Bush administration, deeply embarrassed, tried to deny Olmert’s account of the conversation. The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that the story was “just 100 per cent, totally, completely not true,” and the White House deputy press secretary, Tony Fratto, said more cautiously that “there are inaccuracies” in Olmert’s account of events. Olmert’s office replied curtly that “the prime minister’s comments on Monday were a correct account of what took place.” He really doesn’t give a damn any more.

There is little reason to doubt Olmert’s story: he may be extremely cross, but why would he make it up? After all, he did get his way. And there is every reason to doubt the Bush administration’s denials. Not only does the story humiliate Bush personally, it gives wings to the suspicion, already widespread in the United States, that under Bush, the Israeli tail has consistently wagged the American dog.

There can be little doubt that Ariel Sharon, Olmert’s predecessor, also spoke to Bush in a bullying way, because he bullied everybody. Did Binyamin Netanyahu give orders to Bill Clinton? Probably not, because silken menace is more his style, but he certainly got his way almost all of the time. Did Yitzhak Shamir talk to George H.W. Bush that way? He wouldn’t have dreamt of it, and the senior Bush would never have stood for it.

These discussions usually end up being about the alleged power of the “Jewish lobby” over US foreign policy, and in Congress it is obviously huge. Ronald Reagan always gave Israel everything it wanted, whereas Bush senior forced Shamir to start talking to the Palestinians after the first Gulf War and paved the way for the Oslo accords and the “peace process.” Which way will it go under the new administration? Well, can you imagine Barack Obama letting an Israeli prime minister talk to him like that?



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