Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism: President Barack Obama this week held a summit meeting with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asi Ali Zardari of Pakistan to bring together two leaders of neighboring countries fighting a war with the Taliban and al-Qaida. He told the world that progress had been made and that the war could be won but that great difficulties lay ahead. As he spoke, a major refugee crisis was forming in the Swat Valley of northwestern Pakistan. A half million were leaving their homes to get out of the line of fire between the combatants. Complaints are increasing against the United States for allegedly killing too many civilians in western Afghanistan in an attempt to flush out Taliban leaders. The question now is will the Afghanistan/Pakistan war come to haunt the new president in the same way Iraq did George W. Bush or Vietnam did Presidents Lyndon Johnson and J.F. Kennedy? Is it true that President Obama has taken a major gamble, and if so, why did he do it? Has President Obama done the right thing in what he said at the summit meeting?
Claude Salhani, editor, Middle East Times, Washington, D.C.: This war is turning out to be for President Obama what Iraq was for Bush. These countries have a long history of animosity toward each other and this is one of the many things that President Obama has inherited and is trying to resolve.
Loory: Is this war with the Taliban and al-Qaida getting too far out of control in the Swat Valley and other places along the border?
Zaffar Abbas, Islamabad editor of the newspaper, Dawn, Islamabad, Pakistan: It is a very disturbing situation. The general feeling in the country is that if the military doesn’t go for a full-fledged operation in the area, it will be messy, not for months but for years to come. That some of the towns in Swat may fall to the Taliban will be a very disturbing sign.
Loory: Are you talking about a disturbing sign for the Pakistani government, for the U.S., or for the war on terrorism around the world?
Abbas: All of them are linked to each other. At the moment, many Pakistanis think that this is America’s war in the tribal areas, that they have nothing to do with it and should not get involved. But, the Taliban is making inroads in areas outside the tribal regions. A serious debate has started in Pakistan that the time has come to unite and support an operation to block the onslaught by the Taliban. The blessing in disguise is that people have started to feel the heat of religious extremism in their country. It may have started as America’s war in Afghanistan but at the moment it has now become Pakistan’s own war.
Loory: As far as the U.S. is concerned, it is NATO’s war. How do the European members of NATO view what is going on in the two countries; to what extent will they get more involved?
Paul Ames, freelance journalist, Brussels, Belgium: There is a growing realization among the European allies that Pakistan is an integral part of this problem. The military has seen that quicker than the civilian authorities. NATO has nothing to do with raids into the Pakistani border areas. The area is run by the American-led operation in Afghanistan, which is separate from NATO’s 58,000-strong military force.
Loory: There is the feeling that India could take advantage of this situation in its dealings with Pakistan. Is that a possibility?
Ashfaque Swapan, writer, India-West, New America Media, stationed in Berkeley, Calif.: The situation is more complex and not as dire. India’s position is less about taking strategic advantage and more of genuine concern. The blasts that happened in Mumbai last November galvanized public opinion. It happened from people who are involved in massive activities in Pakistan, and yet the Pakistani government has been wringing its hands. Generally speaking, India’s geopolitical strategic advantage is not a recent phenomenon. The root of the problem still lies in Pakistan.
Loory: Increasingly, it is being said that the root of the problem in both Pakistan and Afghanistan really resides in the tribal territories of Pakistan. Is this correct?
Abbas: The militancy that we see in Pakistan is largely of its own making, but when America installed an anti-Taliban regime in Kabul, most of the Taliban and al-Qaida members crossed into Pakistan. There were links between the Pakistani militants and al-Qaida and now most of them are largely located in the semi-autonomous tribal region on the border. This is the territory where the American forces carry out attacks against al-Qaida. Yet, many civilians are also killed and that multiplies the effect as the Taliban fights against the Pakistani military on one side and NATO forces on the other side.
Loory: In Washington there is a growing feeling that Karzai and Zardari cannot effectively deal with these problems. If so, what are we going to do in the U.S.?
Salhani: The Obama administration is going to give a lot more thought and effort to Pakistan. Pakistan has become part of the solution. It is a very porous border that is difficult to police. Tribal loyalty is an important issue in that the first loyalty is to the tribe, not to the nation. There are people on both sides who will give refuge to the Taliban and to al-Qaida.
Loory: There is also the problem of the security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and the problem of opium production in Afghanistan. Both of these are potential world-wide problems.
Salhani: From what we understand from U.S. intelligence sources we’ve been speaking with, they do not seem to be too worried with the Pakistani nuclear issue because they say it is well protected. Trouble arises if there is a change of government in Pakistan and a pro-Islamist government takes over.
Loory: You are talking about their use by the government. What about the bunkers where these weapons are stored? How secure are they and what concern is there at NATO about this?
Ames: Suggestions that the Taliban are heading toward Islamabad and that the nuclear weapons will fall into their hands is not taken seriously amongst NATO commanders. The U.S. is now taking the problems of Pakistan more seriously, and I think that is also true of the EU. They are planning to hold the first EU/Pakistan summit soon and they wil try to put relations with Pakistan at a much higher level. The EU is also trying to use economic weapons to try and help stabilize Pakistan notably by opening its markets to Pakistani trade.
Loory: What about the question of opium coming from Afghanistan?
Ames: It is an enormous problem. NATO is at a loss how to deal with it. They don’t have the mandate and they don’t have the manpower. There is a large feeling among many countries that to actually go out and destroy the crops would be counter-productive. It would drive the poor farmers who produce the raw material into the hands of the Taliban.
Loory: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said there was no chance the U.S. military would get involved in Pakistan. Will this attitude be maintained or is there a danger that the war will escalate?
Salhani: At the moment, it doesn’t look like the U.S. military will get involved actively in Pakistan. Obama is trying to disengage from Iraq and has to engage more heavily in Afghanistan. I think we will see more troop deployment in Afghanistan and quite possibly along the Afghani/Pakistani border.
Loory: What would the consequences be of American military involvement in Pakistan?
Abbas: It would be disastrous. American action is causing people to turn toward the Taliban.
Loory: Afghanistan was the so-called “good war” in the Bush years and President Obama has adopted it as such. But with this, he has also adopted all of its worries and the unresolved question is whether he is getting us too deeply into this war.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo and Melissa Ulbricht.