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Globe editorial

Obama's threatened guests

May 9, 2009
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PRESIDENT OBAMA conveyed the right message last week by hosting Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. The meeting at the White House reflected the close link between Pakistan and the anti-Taliban struggle in Afghanistan. Indeed, nests of Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other extremists sheltering on the Pakistani side of the border have become a grave threat to Pakistan itself.

Obama was wise to stress that the crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be resolved easily or quickly. Any attempt to lull the American public into thinking otherwise would eventually boomerang.

Obama's remarks after his trilateral talks with Karzai and Zardari were apt, but barely skimmed the surface of the difficulties that confront Pakistan and Afghanistan - and their American partner. As recent events suggest, US military strikes against militants in both countries inevitably provoke anger and indignation among civilians. Those civilians are victimized several times over - by Taliban fanatics who cut off heads and burn down girls' schools, by local warlords and corrupt officials, and then by American bombers and Predator drones.

Counterinsurgency wars like those in Afghanistan and Pakistan are won or lost not on a battlefield but in the struggle for the population's allegiance. If Karzai, who has complained in public about the bombing of innocent civilians, warned Obama in private about the fury of Afghan villagers who lost their loved ones to US bombing strikes, Obama should heed the warning.

The same applies in Pakistan, where missiles from unmanned US drones have killed local people along with a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives. The blowback from those missile attacks may be too costly to justify their continuation. Even if Pakistani allies of Al Qaeda are exaggerating the number of civilians killed and injured, the resulting enmity against America becomes a dangerous weapon in the hands of all the militant groups in Pakistan.

The United States has other tools available. Obama invoked the need for "a positive program of growth and opportunity." In the background was his proposed package of $7.5 billion over five years in US economic aid for Pakistan, $5.5 billion pledged at a recent Tokyo donors' conference, and a $7.6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. These sums hint at the scope of the problems facing Pakistan, whose economy is far more developed than Afghanistan's.

In the long run, the fight against violent fanatics in both countries will have to be won with economic development and real schools to replace the madrassas where new suicide bombers are indoctrinated.

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