Obama needs to redo his sums

Most reports emanating from Washington indicate that the United States is caught in an acute dilemma over Afghanistan. Having spent nine years fighting in the mountainous terrain without achieving what it wanted to, policy-makers in Washington are debating not the pros and cons of a pull-out, but when to pull out of Afghanistan.

The issue will be clinched in December when President Barak Obama has called a high-level review conference after which he will take the call about the time-table and the nature of the troop withdrawal.

Even before President Obama reaches New Delhi for his first-ever visit in November, India is letting the Americans know how dangerous it will be to leave a vacuum in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of troops next summer as promised by the US President soon after his election.

The jury is still out in Washington on the US pull-out.  Compulsions of domestic politics, the forthcoming congressional elections, his keenness to stand for a second term in the White House, the  running cost of the war, the battle-fatigue, and the state of the economy,  seem to have persuaded President Obama to favour a phased withdrawal beginning in July next year.

Many of his top advisors are agreeing with him.  He is also getting support from Nato allies who are fighting with US troops  but are showing greater keenness to pull out of Afghanistan.

However, serious opposition to a pull-out is coming from other policy advisors who think the US cannot afford to lose face in the world if it walks out of Afghanistan without achieving much.

General David Patreas who was recently sent to Afghanistan to lead the US troops, chose to go on record recently, stoutly opposing the idea of the withdrawal next summer. He thinks the US task in Afghanistan is not yet over. This view is reportedly shared by several policy wonks in Washington, and many in the Pentagon. It remains to be seen whether President Obama will at all go by the views of the high-profile general  or stick to his belief.

There is a serious risk of the Americans going in for a  withdrawal  without considering the implications it will have for the image of the United States as a world power, for the countries in the region and the rest of the world.

A US withdrawal is bound to send wrong signals to the Taliban, Al Qaida and other Jehadis all over the world who would possibly have a last laugh over the fate of the campaign the mighty United States  launched against them soon after 9/11.

Already the Taliban are feeling emboldened by Nato troops’ failure to tackle it.  The Taliban continue to have the capacity to mount attacks at the targets they choose  and  disperse behind the hills afterward. They have been able to have their way, particularly in the south and the areas close to Pakistan-Afghan border.

Al-Qaida, on the other hand, is not just marking its time in the caves in the Af-Pak region. It has begun operating from Yemen, Somalia and lately from Algeria.  A fight against terrorism is always difficult; it is more so, when the destructive force spreads its wings to different countries and climes.

India will  also be concerned if the pull-out leads to the Taliban filling the  post-withdrawal vacuum. The bitter memories of the 1990s when Indians were driven out of Afghanistan, and the Kandhar hijack are still fresh in Indian minds.  Pakistan’s ISI will again exploit the situation by using the Taliban against India.

Islamabad’s ultimate aim is to acquire what it calls “strategic depth” –the strange doctrine it has evolved to give a cover to its extra-curricular territorial designs by installing a surrogate government in Kabul.

India is not opposed to the US pull-out per se.  It, however, does not want Pakistan to gain influence in Afghanistan using the Taliban which has been trained by the ISI.  General Pervez Kiyani and his predecessors have over the years  sought to justify the doctrine of strategic depth on the ground that Pakistan needs  “the depth” in the north-west to face threat from India in the east.

New Delhi would like a regional solution to be evolved at an international conference to guarantee Afghanistan, like Austria, a neutral status.  This will essentially involve guarantees by the UN Security Council, the European Union, the neighbours – India, Pakistan and Iran – and those in the north like Tajikstan and Uzbekistan.

Pakistan, as expected, is totally allergic to the idea of  regional solution as it will not be able to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. The guarantees will counter its game-plan going under the rubric of “strategic depth”. It is odd that the US is also lukewarm to the idea of  regional solution.

There is another danger in case the US pulls out. The Taliban are essentially a Pushtoon force reflecting  hardcore Wahabi orthodoxy.  The Tajiks and  the Uzbeks in the northern and the Hazras living along the borders with Iran are bound to join hands against the Taliban.

This kind of conflict can again lead to a civil war between the Taliban and the non-Pushtoons and the country where the US wanted to establish peace and democratic order will get torn asunder.

While the ripples of such a civil war will be felt in Central Asia, the US and Nato troops would have gone home, with none in the area capable of restoring order in what would definitely be a troubled region.  Instability in the region can also draw in other nations and  also create fresh uncertainties in West Asia.  In a global world, fires can be lit with a little effort, but cannot be contained easily.

No one knows what view Washington will take on President Obama’s project to see US soldiers home next summer but India would need to let the President know when he comes here in November  about the risks involved in case he persists on a pull-out.

– The Asian Age, August 28th, 2010

Allow them some space to breathe

Afghanistan has always been a prisoner of its geography and history and this imponderable has blocked its emergence as a sovereign nation with a will of its own. Its strategic location could have been an asset for the world; on the contrary, it has turned out to be the cause of its

Nations have often found it tempting to meddle in Afghanistan’s affairs. But the time has come, particularly for India, Iran and Pakistan, and the US, Russia, China and the European Union, and also Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia, to discuss how Afghanistan can be helped to live on its own, without any fear of interference from outside.

An effort aiming at an international concert on Afghanistan’s future has become urgent in view of President Barack Obama’s growing impatience to pull US troops out of the country before making a bid for another term. India, on its part, should not be shy of discussing with others the possible scenario in Afghanistan, after foreign troops leave the country.

It is not that during the last couple of years, major countries have not been discussing this situation. These discussions, however, have been non-serious, mainly because the US and Nato have been bothered more about tackling the immediate situation than sorting out the future.

President Obama’s keenness for re-election is understandable, but walking out of Afghanistan leaving behind a vacuum to be filled by wrong elements will amount to abdication of the responsibility the US took up after 26/11.

One idea that has been in the air, but not pursued by those who ought to have done so, is about recognising Afghanistan as a neutral nation with the assurance that no power would be allowed to interfere in its affairs. Although no two situations can be alike in international affairs, Austria has been cited as an example in exploratory consultations. It has been able to buy several years of peace guaranteed by other European powers.

President Karzai, it is said, does not like the term “neutrality”, but he is bound to welcome the idea if durable peace can be restored in his country. Another term can be thought of which guarantees peace to Afghanistan, shields it from outside interference, and underscores its status as a sovereign nation. After their experience with Afghanistan, most nations would like to accord it a neutral status.

There is, however, an exception — Pakistan — which is opposed to any such thought. This is because it undercuts the very concept of the ‘strategic depth’ Pakistan avows to acquire in Afghanistan. This concept is flawed, outdated and against the basics of international law and unsuitable to the needs of the 21st century. Also, it has the potential to cause  considerable mischief.

Embedded in it is the intention to interfere in Afghanistan, there’s a tendency to covet its territory, or guiding its affairs by placing a quisling in command in Kabul. This will be a source of recurring tensions. The immediate victim of the ‘strategic depth’ is bound to be where the depth — whether political or territorial — is sought to be acquired.

Judging from the psychology of Pakistan’s military leaders it will be difficult to sell the concept of a neutral Afghanistan to them, but others cannot afford to give it up if they want to see Afghanistan and the region trouble-free.

The thought of a neutral Afghanistan is still nascent and will take some time to mature. At present the US, the key actor  in Afghanistan, is only keen to induct a section of the Taliban — the so-called ‘Good Taliban’ — into the Karzai government so that it can pull out its troops in a couple of years. It will, however, be unwise for the US and other nations not to look beyond the withdrawal of troops. Unsettled Afghanistan will always be a problem for the world.

– Hindustan Times, May 6th, 2010.