Obama: What Is In Store For South Asia?

As I spent the last few months scouring over every poll and every commentary hoping for an Obama victory, I was also inundated by the news of a steady stream of US strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the growing number of civilian casualties. The footage of death, displacement and suffering that that I see everyday is brutal and unbearable. I can only imagine what the reality is for those who are forced to confront them. This, and the atrocity of suicide attacks, have together come to form a vicious cycle of violence from which there seems to be no respite.

The schizophrenia of this situation refused to leave me as I basked in the euphoria we experienced collectively the night of November 4. If Obama is a transitional figure it is not only because he is the first African-American to occupy the White House, but because his victory signifies the re-enfranchisement of a disenfranchised citizenry. It is thus much more a victory of millions of ordinary citizens and social movements rather than of one individual. And my hope is that it stays that way.

As this campaign reached its fever pitch, the reports of continuous US air strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan and civilian casualties also grew. This got little play in the media or the campaign (with some exceptions such as Rachel Maddow, Democracy Now and this website). Not surprisingly, there is tremendous apprehension in the region that given Obama's stated strategy of 'finishing the War in Afghanistan' such strikes will escalate.

How hopeful should we be that Obama will opt for something different? Let us start with some assumptions. There is some reason to believe that he will not build his entire ethic of governance based on occupation militarism and war profiteering. He will also not whip up a fear of all things Islam and all Muslims for justifying imperialism. His appointments however give us some serious concern. First there is Rahm Emanuel. Then, as the Times of Indiareports there is considerable worry over Sonal Shah, a well-known ally of the Hindu religious right, in particular of Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat who was denied a visa to the US. These are bad starts, but obviously not necessarily substantive indicators of his foreign policy. Will he send more troops to Afghanistan? He may, but it is not inevitable (despite his rhetoric). First, if he really does focus on gathering proper intelligence and advice, he will know that this war cannot be 'won'. A military solution alone has no future. To his credit, he already conceded that in one of the interviews he did close to Election Day (with Maddow). Second, if he is serious about 'fixing' the economy, he must understand that escalating military intervention in an unwinnable war cannot be good for an economy in shambles and a military stretched thin. But these 'preconditions' alone cannot guarantee that Obama abandons his election rhetoric. Only one thing can: pressure from those who elected him. In addition, there must be a global mobilization by international civil society which is now cheering Obama's victory.

This mobilization, within the US and beyond, must go beyond the discourse of war 'strategy' and raise the fundamental question of injustice of occupations. Further, greater international support and recognition must also be given to democratic struggles inside South Asia (such as the lawyers' movement in Pakistan, which, despite the machinations of Zardari's government has just got new life under the election of their fiery president of the Supreme Court Bar Association). Finally, the history of unholy alliances between US administrations and military dictators in the region must end for good. And no new unholy alliances between governments which make false claims to democracy must be sought. As David Ignatius has claimed in The Wasington Post, and as the media in Pakistan has also been discussing, a dangerous and secret game may already be in motion: 'Pakistan's leaders publicly decry U.S. attacks, and the United States, with a wink and a nudge to its ally, keeps on attacking'.

No doubt, India's role and relation to the US will play a critical role in these developments. So far this relation has been driven by fairly narrowly defined interests of business and political elites. Accordingly, there is much apprehension that Obama will want to revisit the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. He was reportedly not in favor of the deal, particularly its relation to India (not) signing the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (CTBT). There is reason to welcome the re-opening of the debate on CTBT and along with, it the crucial debate on nuclear deterrence in a much deteriorated global security environment. However, the nuclear deal is backed by serious business interests in the two countries and I expect no major upsets to this apple cart.

An equally serious issue is that of Kashmir. According to media reports, Bill Clinton is being sounded out as a broker between India and Pakistan to carve out a solution. This could be a potentially critical development with India having traditionally been against mediation and (as Pakistan's Dawn reports) Kashmiri separatist groups increasingly calling for mediation. Of course, it all depends on the nature of 'mediation' and if it is in fact mediation or veiled (or not so veiled) intervention. Clinton's 'interventionist' record, as we know, is not the best. Here too, my real hope is that the governments and citizens in South Asia will find ways to solve their own conflicts and resist unnecessary political maneuvers from outside. It is about time.

What does all this mean then? Quite simply the following: if indeed there is a global will to look for political solutions to the multiple conflicts, then the global citizenry must do everything possible to ensure Obama's presidency moves in that direction. This option was not possible under the Bush-Cheney regime, and would not have become available without the change the US electorate delivered to the rest of the world last Tuesday. Now it is up to us, each and every one of us, to realize these possibilities.

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