Enemy of my enemy

It is a truism that you don’t get to pick your enemies, but in global politics it is often true that you don’t get to pick your friends either. That’s the situation President Obama finds himself in today and Thursday as he meets in Washington with the weak and not terribly popular presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan. His challenge is to build confidence and forge a common counter- insurgency strategy with these U.S. allies who do not trust each other or, necessarily, Obama.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose control barely extends beyond the capital of Kabul, accuses Pakistan of allowing Taliban fighters to seek sanctuary across their common border. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, battling his own insurgency within 60 miles of the capital of Islamabad, thinks Afghanistan is too cozy with Pakistan’s historic enemy, India. Both leaders, meanwhile, bristle at U.S. criticism of their corrupt and ineffective governments, even as they worry about losing U.S. support.

Zardari in particular is unhappy that Obama expressed “grave concern” about the stability of his country and the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal shortly after opening lines of communication with his chief political opponent, Nawaz Sharif.


The Obama administration has little choice but to work with these imperfect allies against fundamentalist Islamic insurgents. They were elected, after all. Karzai appears to be co-opting his enemies and peeling off his competition as he seeks reelection in August. Zardari still appears to be holding on to power after recent insurgent gains in the Swat and Buner valleys stunned the Pakistani public and prompted the often- reluctant Pakistani military to launch a counteroffensive.

Obama must press ahead with his so-called Af-Pak strategy, which aims to address the region’s problems as a whole (despite Zardari’s distaste at being lumped in with Afghanistan) by supplying military aid, troop deployments in Afghanistan and development funds; Obama also hopes to win more cooperation from regional powers such as India, Iran and China. He must continue to press his allies to strengthen civilian government institutions and improve the delivery of services and security. That’s the only way these leaders will gain real legitimacy and counter the insurgents who are their common enemy.