Troop redeployment is Pakistan’s not-so-subtle message to Obama

December 27th, 2008 - 1:59 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaChicago, Dec 27 (IANS) Away from Chicago’s intensely cold winter and vacationing in the salubrious climes of his birth state Hawaii, President-elect Barack Obama is being delivered a not-so-subtle message by Pakistan.The reported movement of Pakistani troops from the country’s northwest to its border with India may well be aimed at telling the incoming president that Islamabad will make its own independent decisions. This could be particularly triggered by Obama’s well known position that Pakistan ought to take strong action against the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine, failing which the US might consider doing so itself.

Raising the bugbear of an impending Indian attack is the only way Pakistan can at least nominally justify redeploying its troops from the northwest to the east. To that extent India’s officially stated position that all options, including a military one, are on the table in the aftermath of the Nov 26 Mumbai terror attacks in case Pakistan chooses not to act against terrorist groups based there, may have played into this design.

As early as August 2007 Obama had said: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” The statement was then seen, as it is now, as a significant departure from President George Bush’s policy of not attacking targets inside Pakistan. In effect, Obama had said that the US would act with or without Pakistani approval in case Islamabad did not or could not.

In some sense the troop redeployment barely three weeks before Obama’s inauguration must be seen as Pakistan indirectly reminding him that it still pursues policies it considers its sovereign right. Without building up war hysteria, Pakistan would have found it practically impossible to significantly disengage its troops from the Afghan border. It was not surprising that Islamabad seized the first opportunity that India might be considering a military option, which has been denied by no less a person than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself.

The timing of the Pakistani decision falls within that peculiarly transitory period when the outgoing president no longer has the bully pulpit and the incoming one would be reluctant to appear to be acting before his time. Of course, back channels between Washington, Islamabad and New Delhi must have lighted in the aftermath of the troop movement.

The redeployment has the potential of seriously undermining the US war on terror in Afghanistan and by implication inside Pakistani border areas in the region where both the Taliban and Al Qaeda are known to have a free run. It is possible that some in the US might see the latest Pakistani move as upping the ante with the specific objective of strengthening its bargaining position vis-à-vis the incoming Obama administration.

It is not entirely clear in Washington what the extent of the redeployment might be, although a figure of 20,000 has been heard in some media reports. US military and intelligence officials have not yet determined if there is any truth to the reports and if so how much.

Although it is not likely to be stated in so many words by anyone in the Obama team, between the two India is automatically expected to be the responsible party and therefore exercise restraint. There could be a sense in the team that New Delhi may not want to present Obama with a highly dangerous challenge by launching surgical strikes against Pakistani targets even before he takes office, according to analysts.

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