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Sunday, July 19, 2009

2828, 9 March 2009
A Strategy for ‘Af-Pak’ Firdaus AhmedFrelancere-mail: The first colonial incursion into Afghan politics dates back to 1838 when the British embarked on what was to eventually end in a rout at the end of the First Afghan War. Just as the destiny of the region was then scripted by foreigners in Simla, today the venue is Washington DC with Bruce Riedel authoring a strategic review along with Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to ‘Af-Pak’ – a coinage proving the imperial antecedents of the exercise. While legitimacy exists in terms of a continuing UNSC Chapter VII mandate under Resolution 1267, the ISAF mandate, stemming from Resolution 1386, stands extended vide Resolution 1833 till October 2009. It is expected that US President Barack Obama would strengthen the political arm of the strategy so as to convince his NATO allies in April to stay the course in its most ambitious out-of-area operation. The military prong is being strengthened, through the ongoing ‘surge’ under Gen. David Petraeus, to impress the Taliban to respond favourably to a coming politics-predominant strategy. The strategy is inspired by the need to rebuild bridges with the Muslim world to defuse any threat to the US, its citizens and its interests. Presently the two South Asian states, suitably alerted to the dangers ahead by the Mumbai and Lahore terror attacks, are holding their breath in anticipation of the forthcoming review report. While Pakistan seeks ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan through the instrumentality of its ‘strategic assets,’ the Taliban, India wishes to deny this to it by hoping for a more robust ‘surge’-energized military engagement of the Taliban by the US and NATO’s ISAF even as Pakistan’s Army, under pressure, delivers on containing the Taliban on its side of the Durand Line. There are forcefully made suggestions of Indian troops coming to US assistance in case of NATO and Pakistani hedging or if their forces prove inadequate. The argument is that just as the US fought the terror menace far from its borders, India should do so too. In order that the suggestion gets a serious look, the argument goes that reservations against this stem from a desire to placate the minority community in election season. Their use of this argument is more to pressurize the decision maker as a minority appeaser, a term of consequence in vote-bank politics. An example of the sensitivity among politicians to this line of reasoning is in Indian Home Minister, P Chidambaram, categorizing opposition BJP leader, Arun Jaitley’s observation on the Taliban being five hours from the border as an exaggeration (Interview with R Sardesai, The Hindu, 6 Mar 2009). However, the fact is that such a move would be unpopular in the minority community. This would not be on account of any feeling of affinity or affiliation the minority has for a beset Taliban, as votaries of the ‘boots on ground’ school would have it, but because of its anachronistic engagement with ideational issues discarded by elitist discourse since liberalization of the early 1990s. This is a perspective it shares with the liberal-leftist end of the political spectrum and is therefore demanding of dispassionate attention in any consideration of the national interest in the circumstance. First, there is an uncritical adoption of Western terminology, evidence of paradigm dominance of the West. The conflict is termed ‘counter insurgency.’ ‘Occupation’ and its counter, ‘resistance,’ being equally apposite descriptively, have not entered the discourse at all. The nationalist proportion of the counter is thus not determinable and is overshadowed by radical Islam – coincidentally beneficial for both parties to the conflict. Second, the imperial policy of ‘divide and rule’ is operational. A counterinsurgency concept involving a manipulation of tribal fissures, that under-grid the Sunni awakening in Iraq, has been imported. This has accentuated the reliance on Islam in the opposition. This explains in some measure the attraction of radical Islam as cohesion imparting strategy. Third, a repeat of powers in the region being at odds with each other is in evidence as was the case in the colonial era when the subcontinent was conquered piecemeal. The field is left for the West to determine and referee with its self-interest as preeminent consideration. This questioning of comfortable assumptions - from which flows policy output - is a necessary precursor to crafting of alternatives. Since Obama appears headed on sensible lines in drawing down the conflict, it would be churlish of India to favour a military dominant approach just to upstage Pakistanis who prefer a political one. It would be a return to the situation in the immediate wake of 9/11 when the US peremptorily required all states to take a call on Bush’s challenge of ”with us or against us.“ A wisecrack has it that should Pakistan turn against the Taliban, India would end up supporting the latter! The recommendation here is therefore that India maintain a studiedly supportive stance so as to give Obama a chance to retrieve what Bush wrought in the subcontinent. A regional post-NATO alternative under SAARC auspices would then not be too far-fetched a proposition.

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