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Saturday, December 05, 2009


Leadership involves taking a call. Obama has placed himself in the firing line, not only on account of what he said at West Point but also for what he did not. His laying a deadline has already drawn fire; that of his defeated rival from the presidential polls, Senator McCain. What he left unsaid in terms of addressing the Taliban directly, has already drawn a response in the Taliban threatening heightened violence. In effect, in case the Taliban are not on board as the deadline approaches, then prospects of civil war loom. But by then it would no longer be Obama’s War since he has already announced, ‘Now, we must come together to end this war successfully.’

The exit strategy comprises another ‘surge’ of 30000 troops, supplemented by additional European contributions. This is intended to bring about a sense of security in which the civilian ‘surge’ and training of the ANA can be progressed. With the ANA suitably trained by additional trainers, it would progressively take on responsibility for security. This implies that the ANA has to be made battle ready in a year and half.

This is a tight time schedule for firstly imparting basic soldier training and then training the trained soldier into being a counter insurgent. Pitching the raw counter insurgent into action against the Taliban, that has been waging an insurgency for the last few years against the US-NATO combine, would be a tall order. Particularly when the ANA is known to suffer desertions and is prone to infiltration by Taliban sympathisers. The ANA would be able to take on the Taliban if foreign troops assist with superior technology, mobility and air assets. When they leave, the threat of a Taliban return heightens, even if Americans intend to ‘continue to assist and act as advisers’. This would be an unfortunate aftermath for a war that has seen so much investment of resources and blood.

What needs to be done to avoid this possibility? Clearly, if the past four years of a widening Afghan commitment have not worked, a year’s additional military effort will not. Obama did not spell out the answer. But in the deadline and his stating that, ‘it will be clear to the Afghan government - and, more importantly, to the Afghan people - that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country’, he has implied a political resolution needs to be worked towards. The advantage of the deadline is that it would focus minds.

A beginning has already probably been made. The suspicion of ISI connections with the Taliban has been virtually acknowledged by former Pakistani president Musharraf. In addition, Obama has wisely placated Afghan nationalism and sense of honour that under-grids the insurgency, stating, ‘We have no interest in occupying your country...And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect - to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.’ Thus, an approach on an equal footing has been made. The Taliban can be expected to eschew temptation to wait out the US. This understanding has perhaps already been arrived at, otherwise Obama would not have ventured to set so explicit a deadline.

What are the implications for India? India’s position has been anti-Taliban form the outset. In case of an attempt at accommodation with the Taliban, India is likely to view it adversely. This owes to it being seen as a vehicle of Pakistani interests and because of its involvement in Kashmir. It would be unwilling to make a constructive contribution since it has been locked in a zero-sum relationship with Pakistan since 26/11. It can play a negative role by promising aid to its friends standing up to the Taliban after US exit, along with other concerned regional states. Though hard-line strategists in India would encourage this line, the problems are firstly its practicability and second it would only lengthen the conflict and lastly it would re-hyphenate India with Pakistan. However, it would not like to place itself at odds with the US led international community’s effort.

Therefore, what should India do? Firstly, it should cauterise itself against the worst case outcome. It has rightly already reopened talks with the separatists in Kashmir. It needs to continue keeping social harmony - managed well over the preceding year - on even keel. Secondly, it would require reining in any intelligence activity that would set Indian interests up as a target in Afghanistan. In case of an action-reaction cycle getting set, there would be no escaping deepening Indian commitment to upset the Pakistani game plan. Thirdly, on a positive note, it needs rereading the last part of Obama’s speech in which he addresses the Pakistani state and nation. From this would emerge how India can modulate its foreign policy to supplement the Obama initiative. In doing so it can extract from Pakistan like reciprocation. It must resume that stalled peace process as a first step.

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