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Obama on horns of a dilemma in the Muslim world

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In Brief

The battleground for President Barack Obama to fight al-Qaeda and its supporters in the Muslim world is wider than that his predecessor faced. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are no longer the only main fronts. Added to them are Somalia and Yemen, where al-Qaeda has gained unprecedented strength. The President says he will use all elements of American power to deal with the situation, but what are the implications of this for his desire to improve relations with the Muslim world?

The Afghanistan conflict has now become Obama's war.


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He has promoted it as morally right, justifying his recent decision to boost American troop deployment from 68,000 to 100,000, as part of an early exit strategy. Yet he seems to be cognisant of the fact that to achieve this objective, the nuclear armed but volatile Pakistan needs to be transformed from a source of extremism and terrorism into a sustainable, stable democratic state.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan suffer from corrupt governance. Without dealing with this problem, which will need to be largely on the basis of structural domestic reforms rather than interventionist diplomacy, Obama will not be able to achieve much in the short run. Neither the Afghan Government of Hamid Karzai nor its Pakistani counterpart under Asif Ali Zardari command sufficient popular support, military resources or loyalty to engage in anything more than cosmetic changes.

The same goes in varying degrees for three other al-Qaeda hot spots: Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. Although the level of violence has declined in Iraq over the past two years, its Government is far from having the capacity to maintain Iraq’s viability beyond the scheduled American troop withdrawal from mid-year.

The underlying ethnic and sectarian tensions between the Shiite majority and the Sunni and Kurdish minorities in Iraq remain a major threat to the country’s future, and have allowed al-Qaeda and its supporters to strengthen their presence – as evidenced by a sharp rise in massive bomb blasts that have shaken the country.

The Obama leadership will not be able to resolve this situation in a short time – and still maintain America’s vital interests in the oil-rich but politically volatile Middle East – unless the President opts for a longer-term military presence in Iraq and abandons his policy of early troop withdrawal.

That brings us to Somalia and Yemen. Somalia has no effective government and the Islamic movement of al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, seems to be gaining strength by the day.

The US intervened in Somalia in the early 1990s in the wake of the collapse of the pro-Soviet government of Said Barri, but withdrew humiliated a short time later. Somalia suffers from such a power vacuum that neither the US nor its NATO allies would want to send troops into the country again. The best they can do is to work through proxy counter-terrorism activities, which cannot be an effective method of transforming Somalia into a stable state.

Yemen shares the same factor of weak and corrupt governance with the other four states. In addition, it offers two advantages for the forces of radical political Islam: Osama bin Laden has ancestral ties there, and Yemen’s difficult terrain provides protective cover for al-Qaeda. To move Yemen in the direction of moderate Islam and good governance would be a mammoth task.

These countries confront the Obama Administration with serious dilemmas. It has basically two options: to engage in wider counter-terrorism activities, or to intervene directly in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in a fashion similar to that in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US military is overstretched and simply does not have the capacity for the second option. At the same time, it is unlikely to prove effective in achieving state transformation.

The dilemma is that the more Obama widens America’s anti-terrorism operations, along with its direct involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the more it is likely to cause outrage in the Muslim world and to advantage the very forces that it wants to defeat or marginalise. This was precisely what former president George W. Bush’s so-called ‘war on terror’ did.

Such a development would do nothing to help Obama’s policy of reaching out to the Muslim world – a process he started with two promising speeches in Cairo and Istanbul last year. And with the Iranian nuclear and Palestinian problems also unresolved, he could risk taking America’s standing back to where it was under Bush.

This article first appeared here in The Age.

Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.

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