Obama's State of the Union address
President Barack Obama spent much of his first term trying to meet his Republican opposition on middle ground in order to push through Congress his plans for economic recovery and health care reforms as well as winding down the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Free from the pressures of a second election, his first State of the Union address on Tuesday following re-election indicated he would take a firmer line on issues that resonate with his support base.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2013
He reiterated his plea for higher taxes for the rich and to "reignite the true engine of America's economic growth - a rising, thriving middle class", asking Congress to raise federal minimum wage to $9 an hour to lift millions out of poverty. Obama also made impassioned appeals to the lawmakers to support his immigration reform "establishing a pathway to earned citizenship" as well as gun control measures to end gun violence.
On the issue of least resistance at home but of major concern to this region, namely the war in Afghanistan, President Obama said that the war would be over, as planned, by late 2014, and the US military presence in the country would be halved from 66,000 to 34,000 by the end of the current year. As the drawdown continues, he said, the US would train and equip Afghan forces to take the lead in performing security duties. The US, of course, has learnt its lessons from its last Afghan war when it went home leaving the country in a mess with devastating consequences for all concerned. There is a realisation that the transition must take place in an orderly manner. Some knotty issues though remain to be resolved. The US, as President Obama, disclosed in his address, is negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government on two proposed missions, one pertains to training and equipping Afghan forces, and the other to counterterrorism efforts. Both are important for the longer term stability of Afghanistan and its neighbours.
The devil, however, is in the detail. In order for the plan to move forward smoothly it is imperative that it does not stoke regional rivalries. Pakistan shares not only a long border with Afghanistan but also blood ties between large segments of populations. Which is why it has borne the brunt of the war like no other neighbour of Afghanistan. It is naturally concerned about the impact the change would have on its interests. More to the point, assigning India any role in training Afghan forces would create unnecessary tensions because of the obvious implications such a role could have for this country's security. Similarly, the provision in the proposed agreement to allow the US to retain military presence in Afghanistan, ostensibly, to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and its affiliates, could be seen by its competitors as an attempt to secure military bases as part of a wider strategy for political and economic control in the region. Hopefully, these issues would be resolved in a way that does not make this region a new hotbed of big power rivalries.