The Washington grapevine had it for a fortnight or so already that David Petraeus, US commander in Afghanistan, would soon move to head the CIA. AP just reported that Leon Panetta, CIA Director, will be replacing Secretary of Defence Robert Gates at the Pentagon, vacating the slot for Petraeus to move in. AP also had a story yesterday that Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador in Pakistan and Iraq is the front runner to replace Karl Eikenberry in the Kabul embassy. Interesting moves. How is Barack Obama’s mind working?
First, Obama is playing safe with the Congress by nominating people who are ‘popular’ figures on the Hill. No tough hearings, no embarrassing ‘nyets’ - these gentlemen’s nominations will glide past the Congressmen in a jiffy. Sure, Obama doesn’t want any searching questions to be posed by Congressmen about the Afghan war at this time when the majority of Americans are for the first time showing plain dissatisfaction with his handling of the war.
Second, Eikenberry and Hamid Karzai don’t get along and a change is needed in Kabul. Crocker, if the rumour is true about his Kabul assignment, got along splendidly with Petraeus in Iraq and his tenure in Pakistan (2004-2007) formed the halcyon days of the US-Pak alliance in the war. Crocker knows AfPak like the palm of his hands and most important, knows the way things work in Islamabad and Rawalpindi and that is an asset when he operates out of the Kabul embassy. Of course, he is no stranger to Karzai, either.
So far so good. What tickles the mind is the Petraeus-Panetta ’swap’. Even assuming that Obama didn’t want to take risks by nominating new faces and ‘provoking’ the Congress at this turning point in the war, the fact is he is missing an opportunity for some new blood infusion into what is patently an anaemic war. This is startlingly like the ‘hammer’ and the ‘anvil’ swapping places - to borrow Petraeus’ famous metaphor. Pakistan will feel disturbed as Obama is virtually confirming the continuance of the line pursued so far, which is to crack and splinter the Taliban and other insurgent groups and then co-opt the ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ and ‘cooperative’ elements into a long-term partnership that ensures an open-ended American military presence in Afghanistan and involvement in the region’s security.
Quite clearly, Pakistani military would see neither Petraeus nor Panetta in a positive light but Obama’s decision effectively means that the generals in Rawalpindi simply have to deal with them for the next two years. Ironically, both Petraeus and Panetta are being ‘promoted’ for doing a good job. These cabinet shifts by Obama virtually mean that US-Pakistan ties are going to see some hard times. Isn’t this a gamble on Obama’s part? Can he afford to ruffle the Pakistani feathers? The fact of the matter is that Pakistan has no option but to strategically defy the US since its core national interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity have come under American threat. The Indian pundits who place abiding faith in Uncle Sam’s omnipotency would say US can arm-twist Pakistan ad infinitum because of the latter’s vulnerability to American aid. But I am not sure that is quite the case anymore.
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