White House shuffle - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

For months, rumours swirled in Washington that President Barack Obama's National Security Adviser planned to leave the administration before the year was out. So it came as no surprise when it was announced last week that Gen James Jones was stepping down as the head of the White House's foreign policy team.

The former marine commandant joined an exodus of senior officials from the Obama administration in the space of a few weeks. Jones has followed the President's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and director of the National Economic Council Lawrence Summers – among others – out of the White House. Although all of them moved on for different reasons, the shuffle at the White House leaves President Obama to draw on a new set of advisers at a pivotal moment when he confronts imposing domestic and international challenges. Crucial mid-term congressional elections loom in November and a review of the administration's Afghanistan strategy is due this December.

Does any of this have significance for Pakistan-US relations? Does the elevation of Thomas E Donilon, described as a "backroom technocrat," to the post of national security adviser (NSA) imply any change in the conduct of this relationship at a particularly fraught moment for ties? Will the new chief of the National Security Council affect the review process of the Afghan war that has now entered its tenth year?

The answer to all of the above is that not much is likely to change, especially because Tom Donilon, as deputy NSA, already played a significant role in the Obama team in the making and conduct of what goes by the name of "AfPak" policy. He had emerged as the point man or lynchpin in the interagency process. As a Democratic Party insider he was also reputed to be closer to Obama than Jones ever was. Indeed, it was because Jones felt sidelined and excluded from the policy loop that his exit had been speculated for several months, and was possibly accelerated.

On Pakistan, if members of Obama's national security and foreign policy team are said to be divided between those who advocate a harder line, or "tough love" stance, and others who prefer a softer, more "incentive-oriented" approach, then the new NSA falls into the former category. Caution is warranted in drawing too firm a line between ostensible "hawks" and "doves" on Pakistan. But if that distinction is invoked, then that would make Donilon a relative "hawk."

His views have been closer to Vice President Joe Biden's in identifying Pakistan as the source of the "problem" for US strategy in the region, rather than Afghanistan, which seemed to have been the opinion of Gen Jones, who was closer in that view to Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is "PakAf," and not AfPak, that results as the policy focus from the Biden-Donilon view.

There is a revealing paragraph on this count in Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, which describes the White House staff debating whether they should worry more about Pakistan or Afghanistan. Several members of Jones' team – presumably including Donilon – said that the chief problem was Pakistan for a host of reasons, but Jones argued that the centre of gravity lay in Afghanistan.

Another insightful passage in Woodward's book has Jones contemplating his exit strategy and at one point calling in Donilon. He tells him that if he aspired to be his successor he needed to at least visit Afghanistan or Iraq as he had never been there: "You have no direct understanding of those places." Jones is also cited as cautioning his deputy that he needed to check his spur-of-the-moment opinions expressed as "absolute declarations about places you've never been, leaders you've never met." American officials have since clarified that Donilon has visited Afghanistan. There is no word though about him making a trip to Pakistan.

It is important not to exaggerate the impact of Donilon's elevation on US strategy that is already set on a path of military escalation in Afghanistan under its new commander, Gen David Petraeus, and a significantly ramped up programme of drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas. Recent reports speak of the US military diverting additional drones from Afghanistan to greatly expand the CIA's campaign in Pakistan's border region. September saw a record 26 strikes in the tribal areas.

This shift in strategic focus and more aggressive US-led NATO actions, especially cross-border incursions, have already threatened to fracture the fragile relationship between Pakistan and the US and hold out the danger of a breach if this trend continues or intensifies.

It is against the backdrop of another flare-up in tensions that the third round of the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue is expected to take place in Washington starting Oct 22. This would have been a challenging round in any case, but present strains – notwithstanding the US mea culpa over the killing of Pakistani soldiers – will test the capacity of the relationship to return to a state of "normalcy" under the pressure of inflamed public opinion at home and mounting demands on Pakistan as US forces in Afghanistan seek to "reverse" the Taliban momentum and struggle to show gains ahead of the December review. The use of more kinetic means by Washington to make Pakistan do what the US alleges it is unable or unwilling to will only add to frictions in relations.

On Afghanistan the new US national security adviser is among those in Obama's civilian team, as well as the president himself, who have been deeply sceptical of the big troop increases advocated by the military during last year's strategy review. The Woodward book shows him questioning the Pentagon on the need for so many troops as well as being "hugely sceptical of the entire uniformed military chain of command."

Donilon's views were more aligned with those of the vice president, who pressed for a narrower counterterrorism mission, rather than a full-blown counter insurgency strategy, with a lighter military footprint but a heavier reliance on Predator drones and Special Forces. Both of them had argued that the cost of the military surge was too high and the prospects for its success too low. These views can be expected to again come into play as the December policy review approaches.

What could also have a significant impact on this review is the outcome of the mid-term congressional polls now barely three weeks away. An already beleaguered Obama presidency faces the bleak prospect of the Democratic Party losing control of the House of Representatives, and possibly (though less likely) even the Senate. Although latest polls show the Democrats narrowing the lead enjoyed by the Republicans, this is not yet enough to close the "enthusiasm gap" between the voters of the two parties, with the Republican base more energised than the disillusioned Democrats.

Apart from the prospect of gridlock resulting from the elections, Republican ascendancy in Congress could bring a resurgence of support for the American war effort in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is mainly from the Republican Party that there is still substantial backing for a war which is increasingly unpopular among the American public. This could affect the dynamic in a policy environment in which Gen Petraeus is seeking more time for his surge strategy to succeed in Afghanistan than that held out by President Obama's July 2011 deadline for US forces to start withdrawing from that country.

How the Obama administration faces up to the political and military challenges ahead will determine the fate of America's foundering Afghan project, as well as the future of Pakistan-US relations. For now, the outlook for both is uncertain. Whether an elaborate dialogue process aimed at building strategic trust can invest Pak-US ties with the capacity to weather another storm remains open to question.

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