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Front Line

Why Obama Is Repeating Bush's Foreign Policy Mistake

In his highly touted speech on foreign policy yesterday, Barack Obama offered the rather sensible proposal that tackling the number one threat to U.S. security should be the number one policy priority of a presidential administration. And, thanks to the Bush administration's negligence, that threat isn't from Iraq. It's from the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last month's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) made clear that Al Qaeda had "regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability, including a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas." Earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell asserted that it was from this region that the next terrorist attack against the United States was most likely to emanate. And so Obama explained yesterday that the central tenet of his plan would be "getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Obama is right to propose extra troops and more aid for Afghanistan (something the current administration has already proposed). His emphasis on improving U.S. intelligence capabilities is also on the money. And, in particular, his strategy for removing the Al Qaeda threat from Pakistan also has merit. "As president," he stated, "I would make the hundred of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan."

This is a good thing, as Washington needs to use its significant leverage with Islamabad more effectively to get Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to take on extremists in the tribal regions. The Bush administration was misguided last September when it acquiesced to a peace deal signed between the Pakistani government and Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the tribal areas. The pressure was removed on Al Qaeda in western Pakistan at exactly the time it intended to explode ten American airliners over U.S. cities in a plot directed from the tribal belt. And, as a result of the peace deal, Al Qaeda's core operational capabilities have been improved yet further, according to a recent U.S. intelligence assessment.

Since the release of last month's NIE the Bush administration has toughened its position on militancy in Pakistan. And Musharraf has responded by moving tens of thousand of troops into the tribal areas in recent weeks. But it is unclear whether the Pakistani government intends to embark on a full-scale crack down on militants in the area or whether it is merely responding to the wave of attacks emanating from there following the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. If Obama is prepared to focus the Oval Office on the problem of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, after years of being diverted by Iraq, that can only be a good thing.

Obama's Pakistan policy also should be lauded for promising to direct U.S. aid to areas such as secular public education, probably the best long-term way to inoculate Pakistanis against extremism. (The vast majority of Bush administration aid to Pakistan, by contrast, has gone to the country's military.) But Obama's promise of development money for the tribal areas does not make clear that he intends to spend more than the $750 million the Bush administration has already pledged. He should. Also, if an Obama presidency is to focus more attention on South Asia, then the Kashmir issue deserves to be made a top priority in that Al Qaeda's alliance with Kashmiri militant groups has been very important to its reconstitution in Pakistan.

In refocusing U.S. foreign policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan, Obama has also called for pulling out all combat troops from Iraq by March 2008 while maintaining sufficient forces in the region (i.e. on the borders of Iraq) to target Al Qaeda within the country. U.S. troop presence in Iraq, he stated, only "enhanced" Al Qaeda in Iraq's appeal. "Ending the war," he said, "will help isolate Al Qaeda and give Iraqis the incentive and opportunity to take them out."

Such an approach, however, carries significant risk. The Bush administration's mishandling of the war in Iraq has led to Iraq joining Afghanistan and Pakistan as a second major safe-haven for Al Qaeda operatives. Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, Abu Ayyub Al Masri, stated last November that his organization would not rest until it had blown up the White House. Al Qaeda in Iraq, for all intents and purposes, is part of the same organization that targeted the United States on 9/11. Last month a captured operative told his U.S. interrogators that Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri provided "strategic direction" to their Iraqi affiliate. British authorities are currently investigating a possible Al Qaeda in Iraq link to last month's attack on Glasgow airport. In the coming years, unless significant pressure continues to be exerted on Al Qaeda in Iraq, parts of central Iraq could also emerge as a launching pad for attacks against the United States.

Furthermore, a withdrawal of U.S. troops by March 2008 may actually strengthen Al Qaeda in Iraq rather than harm it. It is no accident that Al Qaeda is currently strongest in Baghdad and Diyala, the provinces in which sectarian conflict is at its most intense. A complete U.S. troop withdrawal would likely make the current civil war grow even hotter. And increased levels of Shia-on-Sunni violence would, in turn, likely result in more Sunnis turning to Al Qaeda in Iraq for protection and retribution. Moreover it is not clear that American forces will be able to garner sufficient intelligence to launch operations against Al Qaeda if those troops are based outside Iraq.

Obama is correct in asserting that the war in Iraq has fueled jihadist terrorism around the world, but, it is not clear that a U.S. withdrawal would unwind this extra jihadist energy any time soon. While the Bush administration's myopic focus on Iraq has allowed Al Qaeda to regroup elsewhere, we must not make the same mistake again, refocusing our energies on Afghanistan and Pakistan while leaving Iraq to become a regional and global operational base for Al Qaeda. Fighting the war on terrorism on two fronts, of course, is a daunting challenge, and the United States will not be able to do so alone. In his speech yesterday, Obama also made clear that he hopes to enlist the support of Muslims to root out Al Qaeda across the globe. With his inspiring rhetoric, he may just succeed. And, since refocusing money and munitions is not enough, he'll need to.

By Paul Cruickshank