Six billion dollars and a two-year long campaign later, America has spoken through the polls. Barack Hussein Obama is back in office for a second term, with many expecting four more years filled with foreign policy challenges, including the one called Pakistan.
Viewed by many as a neutralizing period after the pro-war era of George W. Bush, President Obama’s first term needed a delicate understanding of hotspots present in the Muslim world. But what began with a stirring speech in June 2009 in Cairo that stressed “winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim World”, ended in what is now perceived by most Pakistanis as “Obama’s Drone War”.
Out of 30 Muslims countries surveyed by various polls before November 6, only one country wanted Mitt Romney to win. That country was Pakistan, America’s frontline state and ally in the War on Terror. And drones have played a huge role in a country already soaked in anti-American narratives from various quarters.
According to the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington-based public policy institute, “337 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed an estimated 1,908 to 3,225 people since 2004, of which 1,618 – 2,769 were reported to be militants. This means the average non-militant casualty rate over the life of the program is 15-16 percent. In 2012 it has been 1-2 percent, down sharply from its peak in 2006 of over 60 percent.”
However, American Pakistanis disagree with the views back home. In a survey conducted by the Council of Islamic Relations – a grassroots advocacy group spread across the United States, 68 percent of the Muslim vote was expected to go for President Obama, largely because Mitt Romney failed to reach out to them. In a similar survey in 2001, CIAR estimates that 70 percent of the Muslim vote went to the Republicans, only to be dismayed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistani Americans believe there was little to choose from since the impact of George Bush has been hard for them to shrug off.
“Although drone attacks need to be stopped because they’re counter-productive, the Romney-Ryan team had a number of anti-Muslim members who openly expressed their beliefs with little or no condemnation from the Republicans,” stresses Muzamil Anwar, President of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) or the Pakistan Movement for Justice – New York City Chapter.
Anwar’s party Chief Imran Khan, who has vehemently opposed drone strikes, a week ago was held at an airport in Canada by US authorities and questioned over his stance on America’s foreign policy. This past September, Khan, accompanied by social workers from “Code Pink” – an American non-profit that comprises of female anti-war campaigners — led a “Peace Caravan” to the tribal areas of Pakistan that aimed to highlight the unaccounted civilian casualties which were pushed under the numbers list as “collateral damage”.
Khan has repeatedly claimed that drones have only served as fodder for the Taliban to recruit aggrieved followers whose family members were killed in a drone attack. American installations in Afghanistan and similar attacks inside Pakistan have been conducted by cross border infiltration routinely. Most recently, child activist Malala Yousufzai, a 15-year old girl from Swat, was shot by the Taliban since she claimed that “Barack Obama was her ‘ideal’.” The attacker ran across the border into Afghanistan for safer sanctuaries.
“America’s foreign policy is institutionalized and does not depend on one person’s whims and wishes”, claims Kamran Rizvi, a human rights activist based in Long Island City. Rizvi, who was put behind bars from 1981 to 1988 by General Zia Ul Haq, was appointed as Officer on Special Duty by two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He believes that the Democrats won a bigger slice of the Pakistani/Muslim vote only because they didn’t want Mitt Romney to win.
Despite better approval ratings for Barack Obama, Pakistani American’s still think the drones need to go. However, that hasn’t been an immediate foreign policy concern in Washington. At present, foreign policy experts believe America’s goals in the region are three-pronged in nature. First, they aim to provide aid to an unstable democratic government that can keep the powerful military at bay. The second part seeks to devise an exit strategy from Afghanistan with the withdrawal of troops in 2014 that are likely to go through the Ground Lines of Communications running through Pakistan. And third, to leave a stable government in Afghanistan that has a competent Afghan army to fight the Afghan Taliban from taking over again.
“Afghanistan and Pakistan need to stand on their own feet and replace aid with trade,” claims Shahbaz Chishti who is the Imam at Makki Masjid in Little Pakistan – a 30,000 strong neighborhood of American Pakistanis living in Brooklyn. He adds, “President Obama has Muslim blood in his veins so he will improve relations. It’s in America’s favor too.”
The affects of growing polarization in Pakistan due to the war in Afghanistan has caused irreparable damage to the region with aid mostly focused on Pakistan’s military expenditures. “Human development is key!” according to Arsalan Faheem, a Washington-based development expert and a Pakistani American with strong bonds with realities back home.
“No matter how wrong it is, American policy on drone strikes would remain the same, be it Romney or Obama.” He adds that meaningful, long-term stability can still be achieved through improving the human development index in Pakistan, with job creation, access to basic health and access to education for the tribal areas in particular.
With Pakistan gearing towards its own elections in early 2013, American foreign policy and Pakistan’s response in the wake of a changing geo-strategic situation is only expected to test this already wobbly and distrustful alliance further.