Originally Published 2009-12-17 00:00:00 Published on Dec 17, 2009
Pakistan's cooperation against extremist groups has been selective, targetting those threatening its own stability but avoiding action against the Afghan Taliban seen as strategic assets for controlling Afghanistan once the US withdrew
Obama's confused policies
President Obama has outlined his freshened up policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan in his December 1 policy speech. The White House Fact sheet notes that the President chaired nine meetings with his national security team and consulted key allies and partners over 10 weeks before formulating his latest plan. It might seem presumptuous to sit on judgment over the collective wisdom of so many responsible and knowledgeable policy makers, privy to the whole gamut of pertinent information and therefore in a position to finely weigh the pros and cons, and with such vital stakes in achieving success on the ground not only at the national level, but also at the personal level. But the virtual damp squib produced by their prolonged labour compels criticism.
The latest policy version is essentially a continuation of the present policy. Obama announced in March this year that the principal US goal is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and deny it a safe haven. Obama had then omitted referring specifically to the Taliban as a threat to the US. Even now his focus is on the Al Qaida and not the Taliban, who figure only in the sub-goal of reversing their “momentum to overthrow the (Afghan) government”.

Obama approved the deployment of an additional 21,000 troops in March to stem the Taliban tide and stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. Eight months later Obama makes the same diagnosis of conditions in Afghanistan, acknowledging that the Taliban has begun to take control over swaths of Afghanistan, with the security situation having become more serious than anticipated. In response Obama has decided to deploy an additional 30,000 troops.  If with 21,000 more troops available on the ground since March the situation has become distinctly worse, what is the guarantee that with supplementary 30,000 troops the situation can be decisively turned around?

The declared US objective since long has been to build a credible Afghan National Army and Police so that they can progressively take on increased security responsibilities within the country. The Afghan government has been complaining against the slow and deficient western effort in this regard, especially in terms of equipping them with heavy weaponry. Other difficulties have been poor remuneration, lack of motivation, desertions, low grade recruits etc. Obama’s emphasis in his December speech on transferring security responsibilities to strengthened Afghan Security Forces is not anything not envisaged or said in March. If in all these years at the task the result has been unsatisfactory, what is the assurance that in the next 18 months the Afghan army will reach such levels of competence and performance that they can take the “lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future”?

In formulating his Af-Pak policy in March, Obama had recognized the close linkage between the situation in Afghanistan and in Pakistan He saw clearly that without addressing the problem of safe havens in Pakistan and its government’s ambiguous policy towards the Taliban, Afghanistan could not be stabilized. Pressure was mounted on the Pakistan government to act against the Pakistani Taliban first as they threatened to destabilize Pakistan itself, and consequently the whole Afghan operation so dependent on logistic support from Pakistan. Simultaneously, Pakistan was handsomely rewarded for its cooperation financially and militarily, to the point that it has become the largest recipient in the world of US aid. Yet, Pakistan’s cooperation against extremist groups has been selective, targetting those threatening its own stability but avoiding action against the Afghan Taliban seen as strategic assets for controlling Afghanistan once the US withdrew.

Obama’s re-assertion in his December speech that the US “will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan” shows US’s inability to extract itself from a policy rut in dealing with Pakistan. More largesse is promised to ensure Pakistan’s “security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent”. The exact import of Obama’s assertion that the Pakistani establishment now is clear “that it is the Pakistani people who are the most endangered by extremism” is unclear, as such consciousness may have developed with regard to the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, but evidence that it extends to the Afghan Taliban, or the Punjab based jihadi groups, is lacking. It would seem wishful thinking on his part if Obama is implying that after Swat and South Waziristan, the Pakistani military will begin operations against the Afghan Taliban. His warning that the US “cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear”, may seem a hardening of tone towards Pakistani reluctance to act against the Afghan Taliban, but whether Obama will risk extending the scope of cross-frontier attacks in violation of Pakistani sovereignty and provoking a public backlash against the government and the armed forces that, in turn, would make the task of securing Pakistani cooperation more difficult, is doubtful. Such a course of action would, in any case, be incompatible with the concept of an “effective partnership with Pakistan” that he speaks of.

The disquieting “new” element in the December enunciation of his Af-Pak policy is Obama’s readiness to “support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens”. In his entire speech Obama does not once mention the term “religious extremists”, “radical Islamists”, or “religious radicals”. Obama is thus demanding an end to violence, not abjuring of extremist religious ideology, even though the two are inextricably linked. How he expects the Taliban, wedded to their obscurantist religious ideology, to subscribe to western constitutional concepts of human rights and abandon those sanctioned by religion is puzzling. Confused policies flow from such confusion in thinking.

The central feature of the new policy is the planned “exit strategy”. Obama has announced that he will begin “the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011”. His defensiveness in sanctioning a limited surge is so obvious that apart from spending a good part of his speech in recalling why the US is in Afghanistan in the first place, he politically balances the unpopular surge by repeating that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home”. No successful military strategy can be based on a retreat announced in advance. “America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan”, he says, a dramatic admission on his part that this war is well nigh lost, a message that can only bolster the confidence of the Taliban that time is on their side. “I will not set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests”, he adds, signifying a contraction of America’s role and a startling acknowledgement by him of the dimunition of its power to shape even a regional order. Most pertinently, the 18 month deadline, the July 2011 date, seem to have been set with the next US Presidential election in mind, which  suggests that the stakes in Afghanistan are seen as less important than the stakes in that election and Obama’s chances to win a second term.

The writer was India’s Foreign Secretary and can be contacted at [email protected]>

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