Monday, August 02, 2010

That horrible sinking feeling

The the last month, there have been a flurry of official visitors from the United States to New Delhi— Afghanistan Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, and Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robert O Blake. Last month top officials of the two sides met each other under the auspices of a strategic dialogue in Washington DC chaired by their respective foreign ministers, S.M. Krishna and Hillary Clinton. Indian officials who attended these events and meetings are struck by the strong undercurrent of pessimism going through the Obama Administration in relation to its AfPak policy.

The problem according to some officials boils down to the infirmity of the Administration, as well as those rooted in the fundamentals of the US government system. The first is a product and a consequence of the inability of the Administration leaders to see through the fog of war in the AfPak region and determine who and where the enemy is, and even if this can be determined, just what can be done about it.

The deeper problem is the ideological and structural problems afflicting contemporary American politics. There was an era when foreign policy operated in a consensual framework and it was difficult to tell the difference between a Republican and a Democratic administration. But the US of today is deeply divided in terms of politics. This is evident from the difficulties the Obama Administration has had in getting bipartisan support for any major legislation that it has sought to pass.


The result is that it is difficult to determine the impact of the political shifts that will occur in Washington this November, after, as expected, the Democrats lose control of the US House of Representatives. By itself this may not be a disaster, but should the Democrats lose the Senate as well, the outcome could be devastating. Try as he might, President Obama is unable to regain traction with the electorate. Since the beginning of this year his approval ratings have been below 50 per cent and this month, for the first time, he has more people disapproving his performance than approving it.
In this scenario, US officials who manage the AfPak policy and who are political appointees are in a state of listless confusion. What will the next review on Afghanistan, scheduled for the end of the year, bring up? How long will they be relevant to the Administration’s scheme of things? As it is the whole situation has been roiled by the need to change commanders mid-stream.
The leaks of the US documents on Afghanistan have told us in just how much deep water the US is. American forces are fighting shadows on the ground and behind these shadows are shadier characters who are supposed to be their allies who are seeking ever greater rewards in exchange for this duplicitous support.
The documents have laid out in some detail the manner in which Pakistan has been backing the Taliban and the way in which ISI operatives work with the Taliban to push the anti-India agenda in Afghanistan. Yet in the period 2004-2009, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was the chief of the ISI for the first three years and has since then been the chief of the Pakistan Army.
This is the man who is today being touted as the great American hope for stabilising the situation on America’s behalf. But it would be wrong to portray Kayani as a villain. He is merely the corporate head of the Pakistan Army which is the real Pakistani protagonist in the AfPak war.
Just how deep the rot has gone in Islamabad is brought out by K Subrahmanyam in an article on Wednesday. He points out that Pakistan had requested the United Nations to probe the murder of Benazir Bhutto in 2008. The three man UN commission found that the threats to her came from the establishment (read Pakistan Army and ISI) and that the parallel investigations of that agency prevented the full truth from emerging.
Instead of acting on the issue, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a member of Benazir’s Pakistan People’s Party, protested the verdict, compelling the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to re-endorse the findings of the inquiry team. Clearly Qureshi’s compulsions came from his fear of “the establishment.”
That this malign entity is able to overawe the party that formally rules Pakistan, led by the husband of the late Benazir, tells its own story.


In these circumstances, the Obama Administration’s policy of putting 40,000 more troops for the limited period of a year is tokenism of the worst kind. That Obama announced the date of withdrawal well in advance indicates how much of a symbolic gesture it was. As it is, these troops are not finding much work to do because the offensive that was planned around them has been delayed, some say indefinitely.
The problem with US policy is that it is seeking to catch the tiger by its tail, when it ought to be confronted head on. That would require the US to first understand where the tiger is — in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. When the AfPak policy was announced, this writer had made the point that the circumstances had actually demanded a PakAf policy. What the year gone by has revealed instead is that the policy would have been better off with a marked Pak-Pak focus. Losing Afghanistan to the Taliban would be a disaster, but having assorted radicals led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan assuming power in Islamabad would be a catastrophe.
Unfortunately, the US policy remains set on trying to work with the military-led Pakistan to stabilise Afghanistan. Holbrooke’s remarks in his recent visit to Delhi, “You cannot stabilise Afghanistan without the participation of Pakistan as a legitimate concerned party,” are accurate enough, but the question you need to ask is “What kind of Pakistan, and led by whom?” Certainly not the people who call the shots today.


The evidence that has come from Wikileaks and the Mumbai attack case suggests that the people who run the country are deeply contaminated by the jihadist elements who have skillfully used the Afghan crisis to strengthen their own position, never mind that in the process they are undermining the fundamentals of Pakistan itself. They have adroitly played a double game with the United States. America may pay a price for this, but the cost to Pakistan could be greater. None of this should give India any comfort. Whether it succeeds or fails, the Pakistan Army will remain India’s bane for a long time to come.
For reasons of its own, the United States believes that promoting this Army serves its short term interests. But this has implications for us, be it in the short or the long term. The Pakistan Army is politically naïve and is particularly prone to miscalculation. This is the lesson of Operations Gibraltar and Grand Slam in August 1965, as well of the ill-fated crackdown in Dhaka on March 23, 1971. Now this Army is also the custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons which makes the challenge of dealing with the situation very difficult indeed.
India’s situation is fraught. It has foolishly depended on Washington to keep Islamabad in check. Now that America’s own determination is fraying, New Delhi is floundering.
Unfortunately, it is not as though any Republican-dominated system will make a difference to the situation. Given current trends, the party seems to be veering towards Sarah Palin’s way. There is probably little to choose between a wimpy Obama Administration and the flaky Palinesque Republicans.
This article appeared in Mail Today July 29, 2010

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