- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari visited President Obama this week to discuss ideas for confronting Islamic extremism in South Asia. No big thoughts sprouted, but the danger of U.S. escalation in Pakistan increased.

The trilateral summit did not produce any new solutions or significant policy initiatives for the ongoing conflict with al Qaeda and the Taliban. Thus far, there is little discernible difference between the Obama and George W. Bush administration policies, except that Mr. Obama seems more willing to draw the United States into Pakistan’s internal affairs.

Mr. Obama made the U.S. relationship with Pakistan needlessly complicated with his statements at his April 29 press conference that implied he would prefer a return to military rule in Islamabad. This at least was the impression many in Pakistan took away. While praising Pakistan’s military, Mr. Obama said: “I’m more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile … We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don’t end up having a nuclear-armed militant state.”

Senior Editor Shaheen Sehbai wrote in Pakistan’s News International that Mr. Obama’s “candid, frank, almost brutal” comments regarding Mr. Zardari reflected “the broader thinking in Washington that the Army probably is a better option” for rule in that country.

This view was bolstered by reports that Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, told administration officials and U.S. lawmakers that the Pakistan military was “superior” to the civilian government and that Pakistan had to act decisively against the Taliban in the next two weeks if it was to survive. In the week since those comments, Pakistan essentially has declared war on the Taliban and begun an effective counter-offensive against extremist forces moving toward the capital.

Whether or not Washington is sending explicit signals favoring military rule, elements inside Pakistan may see this as approval to put the military back in power. The cautionary tale already seizing imaginations in America and abroad is the Kennedy administration’s involvement in the 1963 coup that ousted South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Mr. Diem was authoritarian and corrupt but effective. Yet, he was very unpopular with U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the press corps in Saigon, and reports reaching the White House convinced President John F. Kennedy to give the green light to members of the South Vietnamese military plotting a coup.

Mr. Diem was ousted Nov. 1, 1963, and killed the next day. Because of Mr. Kennedy’s complicity in Mr. Diem’s overthrow, the United States assumed moral responsibility for the war in South Vietnam. To paraphrase former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, we broke it, so we had to fix it. Four military governments followed in the next two years, the North Vietnamese exploited the chaos, and the United States was forced to begin its large-scale military involvement in Vietnam.

The lesson of the Diem coup is that the United States should not attempt to micromanage the internal politics of countries we do not understand. Our fear is that in its rush to find a quick solution to the problems in Pakistan, the Obama administration will find a way to shift power back to the military. Newsweek magazine pre-emptively declared the conflict in Afghanistan to be “Obama’s Vietnam” - but it looks like Pakistan is a better contender for that title.

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