Obama Needs to Look to the Future


As President Barack Obama prepares to address the Muslim World from Cairo on Thursday this week, he would do well not to dwell on the past but to look to the future. His speech should be the first salvo in a battle to meet the expectations of a world dominated by youth. He should not revive memories of past conflicts. He needs to keep certain facts in mind, many of them intuitively clear to him no doubt from his own exposure to parts of the Muslim World and to his early personal friendships with young Muslims.

First, Muslims, who comprise between one-fifth and one-quarter of the world’s population, are a diverse lot. Speaking politically or socially of the “Muslim World” as a bloc would be a mistake, as much as speaking of left-handed persons in the world as a bloc. Second, their population is rising rapidly, close to 2 per cent a year worldwide. In the last century the world’s Muslim population rose from 150 million to over 1.2 billion.

Most important, President Obama will be addressing a population with a huge “youth bulge”: In the Middle East, for example, 60 per cent of the population is below 25 years. Research indicates that some 60 of the 67 countries with a youth bulge are embroiled in internal conflicts today. In 62 countries of the world, two-thirds of the population is below 30. Countries like Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are included in this group. Over half of the population of Iran is below 30 years.

Muslim youth were excited by Obama’s election and it is this group that he should address when he speaks from Cairo on June 4, for they, not the aging autocrats or obscurantist clerics, will control the future of the Muslim World. And they are increasingly connected with the world at large through the internet, radio, and television.

What is the message they wish to hear?

  • The US will match its deeds to its words. It will no longer talk of democracy while supporting and propping up autocrats in the Muslim World;
  • It will help open up societies, using moral suasion, new technologies, and by aligning itself with the forces of moderation and progress;
  • It will help create jobs by investing in the infrastructure of the Muslim World, while laying the foundation for the future with aid for education rather than military hardware; and
  • It understands the angst and the anger of the youth of the Muslim World and supports them in their quest to stay true to their Muslim roots while reaching for the fruits of democracy and progress that youth around the globe seek.

If President Obama connects with Muslim youth this week he will be investing in the future by drawing them away from the blandishments of the radical Mullahs. If he bends his message to maintaining ties with the antiquated feudal and dynastic leaders of the Muslim World, the opportunity will be lost to build a better world for all of us.

This also appeared on The Huffingotn Post and www.acus.org

Wariness in Pakistan


February 22, 2009

PROVINCIAL authorities in the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan struck a peace deal with local Taliban franchisees this week, and in it the government agreed to extend Islamic law in the area. Since then, commentators around the world have pretended to know what the agreement means. Some suspect a "hidden hand," whether it be the intelligence agencies or the United States. In a conspiracy-prone Pakistan, some even talk of an inside deal between the army and the militants - even as they ignore the hundreds of casualties that the army suffered in Swat. Never mind that facts may interfere with these pet theories.

In reality, only the locals know what the deal really means. I recently received the following account from a young woman from the area:

"For months and months the military has been trying to quell the militants. Two days ago their failure was accepted when the provincial government of the North-West Frontier Province went into talks with Mullah Sufi Mohammad and accepted some things. We don't yet know what those things are but the first promise is peace. Peace on what grounds? We don't know.

"Today the party of the Mullah announced that 'democracy' is un-Islamic. It is too late. We have lost the battle against the militants. We have seen day by day how government and army have [been] weakened, how they have finally been reduced to talk and to deal. Nobody is accountable for the thousands killed, for the closure of schools, for the beheadings of men and women. Nobody. Someone said to me the other day - 'Don't complain, because the one you complain to will be your enemy.'

"We no longer can turn [to anyone] here to complain. We now have to think about how to survive this. We now have to give up much of what many of us believe in - tolerance, peace, educated women, and freedom."

She believes the North-West Frontier Province is lost. And she questioned whether President Obama understands the extremists. "He seems to think that these people can be contained within their land, or [any] land. He thinks there is a meeting point, a dialogue possibility. Those who think that giving the militants their haven will contain them - well, the rest of the country and the world will see what this will lead to. This is not the end, it is only the beginning."

I can see her point. We seem to be reviving a deal that fell apart last year, a deal that the army opposed at that time. It fell apart in a matter of days, and the first army sortie resulted in some 18 dead soldiers. Will the army want to re-enter the fray if this deal falls apart? Who will claim responsibility for the inevitable failure?

Recall that in 1994 Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's government agreed with the same militant leader, Mullah Sufi Mohammad, to allow him to run some districts of Swat and Malakand according to his convoluted view of Islamic law. He thus got legitimacy and grew into a force that now has brought a new government to the table.

Pakistan's constitution already contains provisions protecting against un-Islamic laws. Why then does the country need an agreement with violent extremists to ensure Islamic laws? And who will pronounce on these laws? The militants? And if the army is to remain in a "reactive" mode, as a government minister explained, will they stand by and watch Taliban justice being meted out to people?

Who will ensure that girls' schools will be rebuilt? Who will protect those who refuse to wear a beard or a burqa? Who will disarm the militants? Certainly not the Taliban.

The Swat deal gives territory in Pakistan proper to a militant minority, against the wishes of the majority of Muslims in what was once a valley of peace and quiet. If the militants gain this foothold, the stain of extremism will spread further into Pakistan. My young correspondent may be right: This is not the end, it is only the beginning.

Shuja Nawaz, author of "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within," is director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council.

© 2009 The New York Times Company

Published by The Boston Globe

What Pakistan Doesn't Need From America


During the tumult of 2008, the talk in Washington and in Islamabad turned to the need for the United States to have a relationship with the people of Pakistan rather than with any single leader or party. Indeed, only by garnering the support of a majority of Pakistanis can the United States leap over the yawning mistrust between these two countries and help Pakistan's government become stable.

Two months into 2009, we are waiting for that change to occur. President Obama has rightly focused attention on Pakistan, sending his powerful and highly favored representative Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to take on the difficult job of resolving regional differences and restoring stability to an embattled country. Ambassador Holbrooke will need help from both Washington and Islamabad to get to the roots of regional problems.

As our forthcoming Atlantic Council Task Force Report on Pakistan stresses, Washington needs to find a way to provide a healthy dose of financial aid to Pakistan, based on a thorough discussion and agreement with Pakistan on how that aid will be used to improve the lives of people across the country and not just in the borderland near Afghanistan. Call it conditionality or "tough love", it is important to be clear about the objectives of such aid, for the financial climate in the United States will not allow any more blank checks to be issued. On its side, Pakistan has already taken many steps to assure the international financial community that it is ready to get its economic house in order. But much more needs to be done: Improving the tax administration, broadening the tax net to capture agricultural income and capital gains, strengthening the legal system to provide cover for investors, especially from abroad, and removing corruption from the highest levels of government. Too many ministerial appointments to its cabinet (which now has 83 members) are seen by the coalition's multifarious member parties as cash cows for their party coffers.

Pakistan could also end the current "cash-for-hire" scheme under which its army was sent into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The U.S. promised to reimburse its "non-NATO ally" for the costs of making this move, and the more than $10 billion in aid given for this purpose is often used as a political stick to beat Pakistan during any discussion of aid to that country. But the U.S. reimbursement scheme barely covers the marginal costs of the army's entry into FATA, and the political costs for Pakistan have been very high, creating a huge backlash among the population of the region as well in the rest of Pakistan. Inside the Pakistan army there is simmering resentment at all levels about the manner in which the military aid and reimbursements are handled. It would in the interest of both countries to end this scheme, and for Pakistan to truly take on the war against militancy as its own war. Then, if the U.S. is serious about helping Pakistan, it would do so by meeting Pakistan's needs for financial aid and equipment (including helicopters and training). Let Pakistan do its own job, for its own sake, not because the U.S. pays it to do so.

U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan are a source of great unhappiness inside Pakistan. The United States needs to find a practicable way of allowing Pakistan to manage the drone operations and to take the lead in identifying and attacking militant targets inside its borders. Fears about transferring sensitive technology to Pakistan could be addressed by joint operations of drones from Pakistani bases. U.S. and Pakistani handlers could "fly" the drones carrying Pakistani markings and be responsible jointly for their upkeep. If Pakistanis call the shots on final actions against foreign militants and eliminate or limit collateral civilian damage, then they will truly be fighting their own war and not "America's War."

On the regional level, Pakistan can and should play a greater role in helping Afghanistan rebuild its military institutions. Increasing collaboration between the two armies would lead to joint operations against the insurgents, while removing the mistrust that has kept Afghans and Pakistanis from working with each other. For example, Afghanistan needs to rebuild its air force something that Pakistan has experience with: it has helped launch a number of air forces in the region. It could become a partner of the United States in speeding up the re-creation of the Afghan air force. Not only would the training be faster and cheaper than with US help alone but also the longer-term effects of close cooperation could lead to mutually understood practices and combined operations. Over time even Indian involvement in this effort could become feasible; both India and Pakistan once assisted Sri Lanka, during the early days of its insurgency.

While the Obama administration seeks to re-energize the engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, it will need to find new ways of making friends and helping reduce regional animosities. Throwing money at problems is one way. Changing peoples' minds about each other may be a better way of achieving peace and stability in that region.

Shuja Nawaz is Director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council of the United States and a member of the Council's Task force whose report on Pakistan will be released later this month. He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford 2008) and FATA: A Most Dangerous Place (CSIS, 2009). He can be contacted at www.shujanawaz.com


A Grand Opportunity for a Global President


Charles Dickens called Washington a “city of magnificent intentions.” When Barack Obama takes over on January 20th as the 44th President of the United States, he will need to translate his own lofty ideas into realities. What makes the challenge bigger for him is that he may also be carrying another title: the first globally-elected President of the United States. Unlike any other presidential election in US history, his nomination was favored by denizens of over 90 countries worldwide. All his supporters, here and abroad, expect him to transform the image and reality of the United States, in short order. While this is a daunting task, it also offers him a grand opportunity to make some bold decisions and set the United States and its partners on a fresh path, where an engaged and principled US foreign policy based on humanity and justice would be the rule.

Expectations are high and no where more than in the Muslim World that has seen the past decade marked by a threatened Clash of Civilizations between it and the West. That is also where the most dangerous shoals of foreign policy exist: Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Asia, particularly Pakistan, which may be his greatest nightmare.

President Obama will not have much time to tackle each and all of these regions of unrest before he runs out of the hope and goodwill that will support him in his early days in office. The economic detritus of the Bush Administration has made the transition complex and difficult. But certain principles that are already reflected in some of his public statements may help point to likely actions that will allow him to make some historic leaps and take his supporters and doubters both with him.

Here are some things he could in his first 100 days:

  • Restore faith in the U.S. justice system by shutting down secret jails in Bagram, Guantanamo, and all torture and rendition practices as well as sites in other countries;
  • Recognize that the Gaza conflict has two sides and that the U.S. needs to engage with both to stop the violence against innocent civilians and children; bring Arab support to bear on stopping Hamas’ attacks into Israel and use the U.S.’s own leverage aid and arms-supply over Israel to stop its invasion of Gaza so the search for a longer-term peace may resume;
  • Announce that the US will respect the results of overseas elections that are free and fair regardless of which party comes to power;
  • Open a dialog with Iran to resolve issues and thus help eliminate Iranian involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, while opening up the path to Iranian help in rebuilding Afghanistan and expanding its gas pipeline into Pakistan and India; Iran is the key to many locked doors in the greater Middle East and to the peaceful US exit from Iraq;
  • Engage and help the people of Pakistan directly to wrest control back from the militants that threaten the stability of that key country in South Asia and thus restore peace and stability to Afghanistan as well; do not favor any single party or person for short-term US gains;
  • Help India and Pakistan back to the peace table by opening up their borders to trade and people; draw the Diaspora Pakistani and Indian community into this process for cross-border joint investments that would allow both rival nations to benefit from trade and cultural exchanges and remove Kashmir as a cause of conflict over time; and
  • Let the Muslim World understand loud and clear that the United States has no designs against it and that it will practice what it preaches by not supporting dictators and autocrats against the freedom-seeking people of the Muslim World.

President Obama can make this statement more effective by choosing to deliver his major foreign policy speech abroad, preferably in the Muslim World…then see the wave of support carry him over the obstacles to these Grand Objectives.

Where would be a good venue for this event? How about the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan, so both Indian and Pakistani crowds can see and hear him? And let those metal gates that are shut by goose-stepping soldiers every evening remain open forever after that as a symbol of good neighborhood and out of respect for a brave new U.S. president who is unafraid to tackle the hardest tasks first.

This piece also appeared on The Huffington Post and on the Atlantic Council website www.acus.org, where the author is now Director, South Asia Center.

Back to the future in Pakistan


As 2007 was lurching toward a messy end in Pakistan, a documentary film suddenly caught much attention inside the country and abroad, especially among the diaspora Pakistanis. Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan's "Dinner with the President: A Nation's Journey" tried to shine a light on Pakistan's future by showing conflicting elements of Pakistani society. At the apex was President General Pervez Musharraf, who was wearing his uniform as Army Chief in addition to running the country from Army House in Rawalpindi. Enterprising Sumar managed to convince Musharraf’s handlers to allow her to film a dinner with him at Army House in Karachi (one of the many such homes that the Chief of Army Staff has at his disposal in major cities throughout the country.) Musharraf invited his mother and his wife to join him at the meal. (Surprisingly the wife’s contributions were almost entirely edited out.) This conversation was the thread that Sumar used to tie together the documentary. Today, as Pakistan, under a civilian government, continues to battle the vestiges of the Musharraf regime and new economic and political challenges, it may be worth taking a look back at that insightful film and what it teaches us about Pakistan.

Sadly, the dinner was the weakest link in an otherwise telling film about Pakistan. By focusing on Musharraf, Sumar and her Sri Lankan partner showed their leaning toward a professed “liberal” autocrat. The assumption that comes through is that Pakistan, with its vast gaps between the rich and the poor, and between the radical Muslims with little or no knowledge of Islam and the intellectual elite, with its confused ideologies and imprisoned in its comfortable drawings rooms, needs a strong central figure at the center to guide it into the future. Even a year later, Sathananthan was accusing Pakistani “liberals” of helping the “neo-colonialists” in removing Musharraf:

“Politically challenged Pakistani liberals — a motley crowd that includes members of human rights and civil liberties organisations, journalists, analysts, lawyers and assorted professionals — are utterly incapable of comprehending the geo-strategic context in which Musharraf manoeuvred to defend Pakistan’s interest. So they slandered him as an ‘American puppet’, alleging he caved in to US pressure and withdrew support to the Afghan Taliban regime in the wake of 9/11 although in fact he removed one excuse for the Bush Administration to ‘bomb Pakistan into stone age’, as a senior State Department official had threatened." ("The Great Game Game Continues", November 2008)

Notwithstanding that the story about bombing Pakistan into the “stone age” was a figment of Musharraf’s imagination and not based on his intelligence chief Lt. General Mahmud Ahmed’s actual report from Washington DC, the film portrays Musharraf as a sensitive liberal with good intentions. The questions lobbed at him were soft; his answers softer still. The dinner turns out to be a dud.

But Sumar comes into her element when she visits with a group of Pashtuns near the Afghan border and bravely challenges their antedilluvian views on Islam and the status of women in society. When confronted by a tough woman armed with potent arguments in favor of equality for women, their best option is to retreat. The most telling commentary on Musharraf’s Pakistan comes in a vignette in the film that shows a poor Sindhi family eating its spare supper on the dirt floor outside its make-shift home. All they have is a piece of flat bread, perhaps some onions and water. They invite the filmmaker to join them. Juxtaposed against the scenes from a comfortable dining room where Pakistani intellectuals rant against the regime or the beach party where obviously drunk young men and women cavort out of control and one plastered young man expresses admiration for Musharraf, the film manages to show the stark choices facing Pakistan, as its heads into an uncertain future.

Critics like Sathananthan may regret that Musharraf was shown the door by the people of Pakistan , and some even bemoan the new civilian government and how it came into power. But they fail to recognize that the only way out of Pakistan’s political morass is to allow the people’s voice to be heard, whether it is through the ballot or through film and other mass media. Musharraf may have facilitated the political return of the Pakistan Peoples Party by removing some of the legal obstructions in its path. But he did not favor the return of the Pakistan Muslim League. The Saudis facilitated that. Both parties won their votes against all odds in a referendum against Musharraf’s rule and on the failing economy.

Showing Pakistan a mirror through discussion and debate so it can see itself may help start a critical debate inside the country. Without such a debate, Pakistanis will lurch from one crisis to another. The chattering classes will be silenced by the cackle of AK-47s and the arguments carried by suicide bombers into the heart of the country.

“Dinner with the President” began that debate in 2008. We hope the team will return to Pakistan in 2009 to show where we are now headed. Next time around, one hopes that Sumar will concentrate on the underlying issues that she uncovered during her “Dinner with the President” and stay away from the drawing rooms and dining tables of the elite. On second thought, perhaps a useful starting point may well be another “Dinner with the President” this time in Islamabad, which was once described as lying (no pun intended) “18 miles outside Pakistan”. Then she should head into the real Pakistan of the poor and dispossessed, where Sumar is at her best. Changing the lives of those people is critical to the future of Pakistan.

This piece aso appeared on The Huffington Post.


Thank you for visiting my site. I hope you will come back often to share views on South Asia, Pakistan, its army, Central Asia, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and counter insurgency warfare. We’ll talk about politics, economics, society, history, art, and the culture of Pakistan. And about Pakistan’s relationships with India, Iran, Afghanistan, China, the Gulf, Middle East, Central Asia, and the United States.

Shuja Nawaz

Since 2009 I was at the Atlantic Council, heading the South Asia Center. Here is a link to all my writing and broadcast work during the period 2009-October 2014: Atlantic Council.

Crossed Swords

Crossed Swords

Based on 30 years of research and analysis, this definitive book is a profound, multi-layered, and historical analysis of the nature and role of the Pakistan army in the country’s polity as well as its turbulent relationship with the United States. Shuja Nawaz examines the army and Pakistan in both peace and war. He then draws lessons from this history that may help Pakistan end its wars within and create a stabler political entity. Oxford University Press 2008.

FATA—A Most Dangerous Place

FATA-A Most Dangerous Place

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