The Monitor's View

Obama's civilian task in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq

He must help weak elected leaders amid conflict in all three Islamic nations.

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Three wars in Islamic nations – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq – now entangle President Obama in ways that would try any American commander in chief.

In all three, however, Mr. Obama's most trying task isn't so much on the military side. It is helping those countries – beset with tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions – to fill a democratic vacuum in each one's elected civilian leadership.

Last week, the Pakistani military launched a major offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan, with backup by US intelligence. This may be the largest military push ever by an Islamic nation against religious fundamentalists, a result of Pakistan's recent awakening to the Taliban's rising threat.

But a weak civilian government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, is ill-equipped to follow up in areas cleared by the military. Without strong governance and better economic opportunities in these tribal areas, the Taliban and foreign jihadists could easily return.

In addition, the Pakistani Army and elected leaders are at odds over tough conditions imposed in a US aid package passed by Congress last week that provides Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year for the next five years. The Obama administration has had to intervene to lessen the tension, especially the Army's resentment over US insistence on civilian rule over the military.

Even if that tension is resolved, the success of US aid in helping bolster government rule in former Taliban-run areas depends on how much the White House keeps backing Mr. Zardari – although discreetly, to avoid making him appear an American puppet.

In Afghanistan, too, Obama aides had to arm-twist President Hamid Karzai over the past week to accept the need for a runoff presidential election on Nov. 7 – as well as accept an official finding of massive fraud committed on his behalf in the first election.

The lack of a credible and popular elected government in Kabul has delayed Obama's decision on whether to send more US troops to Afghanistan. Fixing the civilian side of this war is now his primary task.

Even in Iraq – a conflict that Obama wants the US to exit by 2011 – he had to intervene this week in an attempt to resolve big differences in that country's splintered democracy.

The American withdrawal could be delayed if the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, doesn't resolve a political stalemate over passage of an election law needed for a national vote in January. Both US Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno, the American military commander in Iraq, are trying to influence Iraqi leaders to resolve differences over the proposed law.

This latest need for a strong US hand in Iraqi politics – similar to the Bush-era effort at reconciling Sunni leaders to a Shiite-led government – signals the lingering dangers of a premature pullout of American forces.

This sort of nation-building diplomacy by Obama appears to be difficult for a president who is so focused on his own domestic agenda, one that is faltering.

But Obama's ability and willingness to mend these wobbly foreign governments will reflect on his level of commitment to the stability of each country.

His attention and resolve are needed in all three as long as a risk remains for extremists to either splinter these nations or to end their young democracies.

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