Afghanistan, Pakistan split over US presidential hopefuls

Pakistani army soldiers patrol a street in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan

A Pakistani soldier secures an area in Wana, South Waziristan

In Pakistan and Afghanistan opinion is divided on whether Barack Obama or John McCain can deal with Islamic militancy

ISLAMABAD (AFP) — From Pakistani tribesmen to violence-weary Afghans there are hopes but few expectations, on the frontline of the "war on terror", that the next US president can solve the problem of Islamic militancy.

US military incursions in Pakistan have made next month's US election a big deal in the nuclear-armed nation, while Afghanistan is entering its eighth year as host to thousands of American troops fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

But with Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican John McCain split on what is increasingly a key foreign policy issue in the White House race, opinions are divided in this corner of the world too.

Afghans largely welcome Obama's pledge, made in a recent debate with McCain, to "take out" extremist havens in Pakistan -- while Pakistanis resent it.

"We do not expect any positive change in US policy towards tribal areas, but Obama's gestures are aggressive," said Malik Habibullah Khan, a tribal elder from the remote Pakistani region of Bajaur.

His tribe joined an anti-Taliban military operation launched by the army last month -- but it has also pledged to take up arms against any US forces which intrude into Pakistani territory.

"I do not know much about McCain, but think he might be better than Obama," added Khan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani this week sought to assure his countrymen over the tensions with Washington ahead of the elections, including clashes between Pakistani and US troops on the Afghan border.

"Whosoever comes, they will be needing Pakistan," Gilani said on Thursday.

"Whether it is McCain or Obama, I have contacts with both of them ... As far as America is concerned, they have to respect soverignty and integrity of Pakistan," he added.

McCain criticised Obama for saying in a televised debate last month that he supported US action in Pakistan -- although the Republican's vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin, unwittingly backed Obama's position days later.

But others in Pakistan are pessimistic.

"Obama has dabbled with this issue of Pakistan's security just to win votes at home," analyst and retired Pakistani army general Talat Masood told AFP.

"Whoever wins it is important that they understand that these incidents will badly undermine the (Pakistani) government's efforts to tackle militancy."

Minhaj Khan, a data expert who works in Islamabad, said he expected the election would make little difference to the tide of violence engulfing the country, including the September 20 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

"I don't think there will be any big change in US policy towards Pakistan," said Khan.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Obama is the favoured candidate.

Afghans back him because he has been clear that the militancy must be tackled at its source -- which Afghans say is in Pakistan's tribal areas, sponsored by Pakistani intelligence, said Afghan analyst Haroun Mir.

"Obama was very clear in his statements that the source of the problem is Pakistan and not Afghanistan," Mir, an analyst at Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), told AFP.

But McCain would see a continuation of the misguided policy of treating Afghanistan as the "second front" to Iraq when it should have been the priority all along, he said.

Afghan public opinion also appeared to back Obama, if anyone.

"US politics won't change too much. Obama and McCain have said they would increase soldiers to Afghanistan and both have made a lot of promises," said Sayed Mohsen Hossaini, 65, a retired teacher from Kabul.

"But Obama talks more seriously about Afghanistan."

Unfortunately for both candidates there is one factor that unites both countries -- rising anti-Americanism.

Afghans have held a series of furious protests in recent months over US and NATO airstrikes that have killed scores of civilians and highlighted the inability of foreign forces to defeat the Taliban militia.

In Pakistan, anger over eight years of US backing for President Pervez Musharraf's military rule has not abated, and is being fuelled by the tensions on the Afghan border.

"America has never done anything good for to Pakistan," said Malik Amal Khan, another Pakistani tribal elder from Bajaur.

"One candidate is African (-American), who is not only against Pakistan but all Muslims. The second is white, about him we can only hope that might be a little bit better."

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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