America's adversaries may be rejoicing, but the US media are showing symptoms of disenchantment with their president just 10 months into his term. A crop of epithets plucked at random from leading American newspapers range from “weak leaders,” “inspires a lot of affection but not a lot of awe,” “a do-nothing president,” “Where's the beef?” “Obama the hesitant,” and: “This whole dance of the seven veils (over Afghanistan) is undercutting the president's credibility.”
Some of his fans call Obama “deliberative not indecisive.” Other writers allow that Obama started out like Bill Clinton whose first year (1993) was strewn with disasters ranging from his failed healthcare reform bill to the US Special Forces' brutal humiliation at al Qaeda's hands in Mogadishu.
But however Barack Obama's style of management is depicted, it has drawn some disillusion in friendly circles and given enemies plenty of scope to pursue their own interests in ways which will be extremely hard to undo. Both groups, whether Russia and Israel or Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran are exploiting the decision-making hiatus created by the US president and his senior strategists' review of US Afghanistan strategy. This is becoming a drawn-out process, a feature associated too closely with the White House of 2009.
With time to play with, Washington's friends and enemies alike are adjusting their agendas to suit themselves.
When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Moscow Tuesday, Oct. 13, therefore, she found Russian leaders toying with delaying tactics on Iran. While President Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would be ready to discuss tougher sanctions for Iran in certain circumstances, prime minister Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov strongly objected to pressurizing or frightening Iran.
They were swiftly echoed from Beijing.
Mass civilian exodus from South Waziristan
Taliban and al Qaeda, while hearing themselves described by the US administration as crippled or severely impaired, have made use of the extra time granted by Washington to launch five large-scale terror attacks in Pakistan in the space of 10 days. Their last coordinated operation Thursday, Oct. 15, targeted Lahore, followed by Peshawar and Kahot, which is a key road hub for access to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
None of this turbulence has shaken Washington's fundamental determination to work closely with Pakistan against both groups; nor has it been affected by the real danger of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands. (See a separate article in this issue.)
Thursday, Oct. 15, Obama signed a 5-year $7.5 bn aid package for Pakistan, allocating $1.5 bn per year.
Wednesday, October 14, the Pakistani Taliban commander Makimullah Mehsud warned the military in Islamabad to stop serving American interests and call off its South Waziristan offensive or suffer blows harsher even than the invasion of their military headquarters in Islamabad Saturday, Oct. 10 in which 23 people died.
They made good on their threat by killing at least 41 people in an attack on a security convoy in the Swat Valley on Oct. 12 and Thursday's strikes in Lahore and Kohat in which at least 36 people were killed.
As Pakistan nonetheless stepped up its bombing strikes to soften Taliban-al Qaeda resistance to its forthcoming onslaught in South Waziristan, DEBKA–Net-Weekly intelligence and counter-terrorism sources reported a wholesale exodus in progress from the villages around the terrorists' strongholds.
Taliban and al Qaeda are repeating the stratagem that worked for them just ahead of the Pakistani army's assault in the Swat Valley in the spring of 2009: By stirring up a panicky civilian flight from the targeted region, they can use the exodus to melt into the frightened throng and escape to safety posing as refugees.
South Waziristan's top administrative official Shahab Ali Shah estimates the stream of refugees from his region has swelled to around 190,000. They are being accommodated in safer places in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank.
Imminent winter snow will hold up Pakistan military operations
Western intelligence sources estimate Taliban and al-Qaeda fighting strength in Waziristan at 13 to 15 thousand.
South Waziristan's population numbers no more than 200 thousand and 460 thousand in all in both the south and north. Most of the inhabitants of the South have therefore hit the road, once again giving Taliban and al Qaeda fighters refugee cover for escaping from harm, with time to rest and regroup under the auspices of the same Western aid groups which succored the 1.5 million Swat refugees. The escaped fighters can then fan out to strengthen allied Islamist groups in other parts of Pakistan – especially in the Punjab on the Indian border.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report the Taliban leadership has split the ranks into two almost equal halves: One group which headed out with the refugees are mostly Pakistanis and Afghans aged 20-25 who are indistinguishable from the genuine refugees; most of the second group are foreign fighters including Chinese Muslim Uighurs and Arabs from the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, made conspicuous by their unfamiliarity with local dialects, and young boys of 12 to 15 who are eager to fight.
The delays in a White House decision on the next stage of the Afghanistan conflict and the fog hanging over the prospects of its implementation award Taliban and al-Qaeda a tactical edge in the next round of the war. The first winter snows of winter are due any day now. When they come, they will impede the Pakistani army's advance on the enemies' mountain strongholds. Military decisions will have to wait again for more clement weather next spring.
Adversaries – and friends – make their own arrangements
The sense that America's adversaries are being allowed to gain on the Obama administration is not confined to Afghanistan: It is also perceived in Tehran and put to good use.
In a separate article in this issue, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report the prevalent view in the Islamic Republic's ruling and military circles that Tehran can stop worrying about the US administration and tougher sanctions because Iran has already defeated President Obama.
Even in friendly Jerusalem, opposition leader Tzipi Livni held prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu responsible for “defeating president Obama” over settlement construction on the West Bank and Jerusalem. Addressing the opening of the Knesset (parliament) winter session Tuesday, Oct. 13, she poured scorn on Netanyahu whom she accused of flaunting this success to score popularity points at home.
In this manner, Livni confirmed the general perception that Obama had lost his campaign for a settlement freeze.
Just then, an unsigned document was circulated among senior Palestinian Authority officials terming President Obama a big disappointment to the Palestinians and the Muslim world at large.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources, the text was composed by high Fatah officials in Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' close circle.
The paper warned that the US president could not make good on the promises he gave the Palestinians and Muslims in the early days of his term. Palestinians were urged to take note of this development and organize for action irrespective of Washington.