Obamas message

Print edition : April 24, 2009

President Barack Obama announcing in Washington a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on March 27. Standing behind him are his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates.-KEVIN LAMARQUE /REUTERS

DAYS after President Barack Obamas speech outlining his administrations plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, militants attacked a police training school on the outskirts of Lahore, very close to the Indian border. The Pakistani security forces were able to bring the situation under control, but the message from the militants was loud and clear: governments siding with the American game plan in the region are going to be targeted. Two days before this incident, a mosque in the Khyber region was targeted by a suicide bomber and 45 people were killed. Similar attacks, targeting North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops and Afghan security personnel, were carried out in Afghanistan in the last week of March.

The Indian government was quick to condemn the Lahore incident, the second serious terrorist attack in the city in quick succession. In the first attack, the Sri Lankan cricket team was targeted. Home Minister P. Chidambaram, however, was careful to emphasise that there were no parallels between the attacks and in Mumbai and Lahore. He said that the terrorists responsible for the Mumbai attacks were from Pakistan, while the origins of those responsible for the Lahore mayhem were still to be definitely ascertained.

Even before Obama delivered his much-awaited speech on Afghanistan/Pakistan (AfPak) in the last week of March, Taliban militants on both sides of the border announced that they had started coordinating their attacks against United States forces and those governments supporting the occupation. Obama had announced that the U.S. would be increasing its troop strength by deploying another 17,000 troops in Afghanistan. NATO generals had already warned that the conflict in Afghanistan would worsen this year. Already, the number of suicide attacks and roadside bombings has increased significantly.

Though Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, has taken credit for the attack on the police training school, Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik blamed it on the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). These groups, which have their bases in Pakistans Punjab province, send their fighters to the tribal areas to train with seasoned Taliban and Al Qaeda militants. Both the LeT and the LeJ were initially trained by the Inter-Services Intelligence for operations in Kashmir. Militant sources have told the Pakistani media that the attack on the police training school was the first major joint operation of Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the militant groups based in Punjab.

Obama, in his AfPak speech, has for the first time set benchmarks for progress in the war and imposed conditions on Afghanistan and Pakistan. His speech did not bring India directly into the equation, but senior Obama administration officials have been saying for some time that to get Pakistan fully on board in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, a lasting political and military detente must be established between New Delhi and Islamabad. Senior Indian government officials claim that the U.S. kept them fully in the loop before Obama delivered his AfPak speech.

Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said that he welcomed the U.S. AfPak policy. He said that it showed the U.S. clear will to control terrorism in the region and its roots in Pakistan. India has direct stakes in the success of the international effort. Speaking to the media after the latest terrorist incident in Lahore, Shiv Shankar Menon ruled out an early resumption of the dialogue process with Pakistan. In the last week of March, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari called for the resumption of the composite dialogue process.

SOLDIERS OF THE Royal Canadian regiment in the NATO-led coalition in the Taliban stronghold of Arghandab district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, on April 2.-STEFANO RELLANDINI /REUTERS

In his first major article on foreign policy issues in July 2007, Obama talked about the need to encourage dialogue between India and Pakistan to settle the Kashmir dispute. Later on, he talked about the necessity to lessen tensions between the two nuclear armed nations that often teeter on the edge of escalation and confrontation. In his AfPak speech, Obama talked about pursuing constructive diplomacy with both India and Pakistan. A U.S. government White Paper that was released recently also mentioned the urgent need for a productive political dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi to bolster the capability of the Pakistani government to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones said in Washington in late March that the U.S. would help India and Pakistan address the issues that divide them. He was careful to specify that the U.S. would not get involved in resolving the Kashmir dispute despite the Obama administrations stated desire to lessen tensions between the two countries. Jones, in an obvious effort to reassure New Delhi, described Indias role in Afghanistan as very positive and said that the U.S. wanted India to continue playing a major role there. In the same week, Admiral Mike Mullen, who heads the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, also highlighted the importance of a regional approach involving India to resolve the problems on the subcontinent.

Obamas current strategy on Afghanistan hinges to a large extent on convincing Pakistan to stop focussing its military resources on India so that its security forces can fully concentrate on the problem in Afghanistan and in Pakistans lawless tribal areas.

The first half of the AfPak speech was specifically devoted to Pakistan. The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to its neighbour, Pakistan, he said. According to him, the Pakistani territories bordering Afghanistan constituted the most dangerous place in the world for the American people. He also issued a virtual ultimatum to Islamabad. After years of mixed results, we will not and cannot provide a blank cheque. Pakistan must demonstrate its willingness to root out Al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. We will insist that action be taken one way or the other when we have intelligence about high-level targets.

The carrot Obama offered to Pakistan was the tripling of U.S. aid to $1.5 billion annually. Admiral Mullen did not mince his words when he told the American media in the last week of March that influential sections of the Pakistani government were supporting the Taliban. The support, U.S. officials have said, consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning. The Pakistani establishment obviously wants to keep all its options open. It must have observed the confusing signals coming out of Washington. Senior Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have also said that they were not averse to talking to the good Taliban. Obama himself has emphasised the importance of having an exit strategy for Afghanistan.

Another idea being mooted in the U.S. is the recreation of a neutral Afghanistan. A recent article in The New York Times by Karl Inderfurth and James Dobbins envisaged a neutral Afghanistan that after the withdrawal of foreign forces would live in peace with all its neighbours, including Iran and Pakistan. India, according to the authors, would be free to pursue normal relations with Afghanistan, including direct trade and commercial ties. (Inderfurth, who worked for the Bill Clinton administration, is being tipped for a senior post in the current administration.) Influential sections of the Pakistani establishment will not be entirely happy with such a scenario.

A comprehensive military defeat of the Taliban would be viewed as a victory for India, Iran and Russia, leaving Pakistan without any strategic depth against India and isolated in its own backyard.

AFGHANISTAN PRESIDENT HAMID Karzai (left) with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzade at the Afghanistan Conference in The Hague on March 31.-CYNTHIA BOLL/AP

Meanwhile, Obama seems all set to escalate the war in Afghanistan and the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. He is being criticised domestically for trying to replicate in Afghanistan the Iraq policy initiated two years ago by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama does not like to use the words military surge to describe the increasing deployment of American troops in Afghanistan. The initial surge in Afghanistan will add 17,000 more American troops to the 36,000 already there. The Obama administration also envisages a civilian surge, whereby Americans will be deployed in developmental activities to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Besides this, Obama plans a further surge of civilian contractors (read mercenaries) in Afghanistan. There already are an estimated 71,000 contractors working in Afghanistan.

Obama has used the same phraseology as his discredited predecessor while trying to rationalise the military occupation of Afghanistan and the reduction of Pakistan to a colonial status. Many observers are of the opinion that it is only a matter of time before the Americans expand the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan. The focus, as was evident from the recent statements of Obama administration officials, is already on the ties between the Pakistani military establishment and the militants. Americas most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, is known to be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

General David Petraeus, U.S. Central Command chief, recently issued a stark warning to Pakistan: The U.S. military will reserve the right of last resort to take out threats inside Pakistan, but it would prefer to enable the Pakistan military to do the job itself. All evidence so far has shown that the Pakistan Army is either incapable or unwilling to eliminate Al Qaeda and other militant groups from its border areas.

Obama cited the September 11 attacks in his speech and recycled allegations that a new terrorist attack is being planned by Al Qaeda and its allies from their hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was no criticism of previous American polices in the region that had led to the rise of fundamentalist groups. Washington had initially cosied up to the Taliban when it was in power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Plans to build a gas pipeline through Afghanistan from Turkmenistan were at an advanced stage. It was part of the U.S. grand strategy to get a stranglehold on the resource-rich Central Asian region. Obama made no mention of the arming and the training of the jehadists by the U.S. and its allies until the mid-1990s. It is another matter that the same jehadists are currently waging war against the latest foreign occupier of their homeland.

Obamas AfPak policy, though welcomed in a few capitals such as New Delhi, has evoked a lukewarm response internationally. In the U.S. itself, support for the war in Afghanistan has plummeted. Latest opinion polls have shown that more than 51 per cent of the population now opposes the war. In the Presidents own party, 64 per cent are opposed to the continuing American military presence in Afghanistan. With the American economy reeling, average Americans feels that their tax dollars are better spent on more productive enterprises.

There is also a view that the American President is over-hyping the threat posed to Pakistan by militant groups. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates himself stated last year that Al Qaeda was a bigger threat when it had the protection of the Taliban government until the events of September 11, 2001. He said at the time that Al Qaeda and its affiliates were confined to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan without any access to international communication or travel. The militants operating from the tribal areas can stage spectacular terror attacks on the subcontinent but pose no clear and imminent danger to the Pakistani state as the American President claims.

Mehdi Akhoundzade, Irans Deputy Foreign Minister, who was in The Hague in the last week of March to attend a meeting on Afghanistan, said that normality could only return to the region after foreign troops left. The presence of foreign troops cannot bring peace and stability for Afghanistan, he told the media. Akhoundzade said that Iran was fully prepared to participate in development and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan and in the fight against drug trafficking. The Obama administration is trying to convince Iran to allow its territory to be used as a supply route for the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to the region, had a cordial meeting with the Iranian official on the sidelines of the talks. It was the first high-level meeting between Iranian and U.S. officials in the past 30 years. It is well known that there is no love lost between Iran and the Taliban, but all the same, the Iranian leadership has indicated that it would only consider the possibility of cooperating with the U.S. after the U.S. normalises relations with Iran. At The Hague conference, attended by 80 countries, including India, Iran called for a regional solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan also figured prominently in the meeting between Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the G-20 meet in London. As is well known, Washington wants New Delhi to be more flexible on the Kashmir issue and show some urgency in restarting the stalled dialogue process with Islamabad.

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