Obama’s AfPak Pakistan situation should underpin US policy

Editor’s Column
Obama’s AfPak
Pakistan situation should underpin US policy
by H. K. Dua

AFTER spending 100 days in the White House and getting his priorities in order, President Barack Obama seems to be coming to the conclusion that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan needs tackling with firmness and urgency.

This is evident from two statements that have emanated from Washington during the last one week. One is the statement the US President made to the White House press corps; the other is what General David Petraeus, Commander of the US Central Command, told the US lawmakers in Washington.

President Obama seemed somewhat clearer than before on what has come to be branded by Washington as AfPak policy. Possibly, he is beginning to agree with India – although to some extent – that the key to the US success in Afghanistan and its fight against the Taliban lies in Pakistan. The President’s remarks suggest that he is not happy with the level of cooperation Islamabad is extending to the US in tackling the Taliban in the tribal areas, which is crucial for its operations in Afghanistan.

President Obama, perhaps, was making an auto-suggestion to Pakistan when he said that the US was encouraging Pakistan to recognise that its “obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided, and that their biggest threat right now comes internally.”

This is precisely what the Indian government has been telling Mr Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy who has been assigned the task of sorting out the Afghanistan-Pakistan mess.

That the US is becoming impatient with Pakistan’s being half-hearted in cracking down on the Taliban is also evident from General Petraeus’ remarks to American lawmakers that the US was looking for concrete action by Pakistan to destroy the Taliban operating out of its territory in the next two weeks, “before determining the next course of action.”

General Petraeus, who is known for being a no-nonsense man, was quoted as saying that “The Pakistanis have run out of excuses,” and are “finally getting serious” about combating the threat from the Taliban and the Al-Qaida extremists. The general did not spell out his options if Pakistan did not go beyond putting up a token fight against the Taliban and other militant outfits functioning under various labels.

Pakistan’s establishment has always tried to evade its responsibility in tackling the Taliban operating from its territory on the ground that it is facing security threat from India and this restricts its scope for pulling out its troops from the eastern border for deployment in the North-West against the Taliban and the Al-Qaida operatives, who have made the hilly terrain their sanctuary.

Actually, India has not created a military situation along its borders that should worry Pakistan’s rulers. About three years ago, Pakistan merrily withdrew as many as 80, 000 troops from its borders with India and felt free to rush them to Balochistan to quell a major rebellion in the province where Islamabad has always felt uncomfortable.

The grisly events of 26/11 in Mumbai were a serious provocation for India to mobilise its forces against Pakistan, but it desisted from doing so. This was mainly because of its keenness to deny Pakistan the excuse that it was facing threats from India and as such it could not spare troops for the North-West.

Apparently, President Obama had this in mind when he tried to pull out Pakistan from its “obsession” with India, and also what General Petraeus described as the “excuses” Pakistan was making for not fighting the Taliban hard.

It remains to be seen how far the Obama administration’s pressure works on Pakistan’s rulers, particularly the Army led by General Ashfaq Kiyani. So far Pakistan has either been not willing to act against the Taliban, or has not been able to do so. Either way, the impact of the Taliban on Afghanistan as well Pakistan has not been conducive to the health of either of the two countries.

What the Americans are acknowledging now about the nature of the threat the Taliban is posing to the region, India has been telling them over the years. Washington’s realisation about the danger from the Taliban to Afghanistan and Pakistan is belated, but still welcome if it succeeds in making Pakistan crackdown on the Taliban with sincerity and force.

For Pakistan’s generals it has been always a difficult decision to cut off the Taliban’s umbilical cord.

The Taliban was created with American blessings, Saudi Arabia’s petrodollars and Pakistan’s complicity to fight the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. It was rewarded by allowing it to come to power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

It suited Pakistan most. Islamabad chose to evolve a strange and untenable concept that being a strip of a territory on India’s North-West, it needed what it called “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. While Pakistan pursued its goal to acquire “strategic depth” through the Taliban, India lost all influence in Afghanistan during the time the Taliban was in power until 2001.

As it often happens in dealings with unattended monsters, the Taliban has by now grown tremendously to threaten not only the NATO troops in Afghanistan, but also Pakistan from within as well as the region.

The Taliban’s tentacles have spread to different parts of Pakistan and also into the Pakistan Army which should worry General Kiyani and the other generals who form the collegiate that really runs Pakistan.

What has happened is simple: Instead of Pakistan acquiring a “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, it is the Taliban that has acquired a “strategic depth” in Pakistan. And this should be of utmost concern to both the civilian government as well as the men in uniform in Pakistan and propel them into action against the Taliban and the other armed outfits parading through the streets of Pakistan.

The roots of President Obama’s policy in effect lie in his desire to create conditions which permit the US to pull out from Afghanistan. And signals emanating from Washington suggest that he would like to get out of Afghanistan a year or so before his present term comes to an end in January 2013. The recession in the US, and the high cost of keeping troops in Afghanistan also indicate a keenness to pull out from Afghanistan.

Here there is a gap between the Indian position on Afghanistan and that of the US policy under President Obama. New Delhi thinks that the real problem essentially lies in Pakistan. The solution also lies in Pakistan, and not in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration will be on the wrong policy track if it continues to believe that it can get out of Afghanistan without clearing the dangerous situation in Pakistan. A policy pursued with the single aim of pulling out of Afghanistan during the next two to three years will not succeed if Pakistan explodes – with splinters flying all around the subcontinent.

Last week’s statements by President Obama indicates the US is becoming aware of how grave the situation is in Pakistan, but it is Afghanistan that provides the underpinning of his AfPak policy. To be realistic, it is the Pakistan situation that should under-pin the US policy.