The past six months have made us think that the foreign policy action in 2009 will be seen along the Russia-Georgia border, in Gaza, or off the coast of Somalia. Yet it is Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan where we should see the biggest issues tackled and the biggest changes coming. Elections in Iran and Afghanistan are scheduled that could have a major impact on policy. Other events are already in motion that will make change inevitable. Here’s what we’re seeing.
Obama has reached out to the former axis of evil with warm words about talking. For his part, hardline President Ahmadinejad has refused to deal with the US yet, and talked about the need for a US apology for past wrongs before there is any progress.
But now there is movement in Iran as we head into the June presidential election. Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former reformist president, just announced he would stand as a candidate to try and deprive Ahmadinejad of a second term. Khatami, a 65-year-old reformist cleric, whose served two-terms from 1997 to 2005, retired from politics after he stepped down but saw no one step in to head the reformist faction. There is potential for real change, but any movement seems unlikely before the critical issue of who runs the country is decided. That means waiting another 5 months before anything happens — but expect changes after the election, on both the US and Iranian side.
Last February, when Joe Biden was a senator who had lost a primary run very badly, was visiting Afghanistan, he queried President Karzai in Afghanistan on the corruption, which Karzai brushed off and which led Biden to storm out of the room.
Today, Biden is the US vice president on a world tour speaking about how the new administration will run foreign policy, Obama has spoken of Karzai as unreliable and ineffective, Secretary of State Clinton said called Afghanistan a narco-state, and the Americans are bypassing Karzai to deal directly with the governors in the countryside. Karzai is unpopular at home, with polls suggesting that 85% of voters want to vote for “the other guy” — and there is an alection scheduled for August.
The security situation in Pakistan seems to deteriorate daily. Last week’s headlines, for instance, included: a bombing of a religious procession in the central town of Dera Ghazi Khan, which claimed at least 27 lives; government helicopter gunship attacks that killed 52 militants in the Khyber area of the tribal region; the kidnapping of a senior UN official by gunmen; and the beheading of a Polish engineer who was abducted five months ago. A videotape of the execution was released last night by his captors.
A year ago democracy was restored after eight years of military rule but many believe the government is in a state of paralysis, as an unwieldy coalition and a cabinet of about 70 ministers jockey for position – ever wary of the army, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its existence. Government decision-making is concentrated in the hands of President Asif Zardari, creating a log-jam, critics say.
But behind the new democratic government, the cause of the Taliban uprising and its backing is opaque. Some blame the Indian intelligence agency (RAW) while others accuse Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Agency ISI. Some even blame the CIA. And India wants questions answered also.