Obama Afghan Policy 05/12/2009

Much-awaited President Obama’s policy statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan was not a surprise. So the criticism that the US did not take Pakistan into confidence before announcing this policy is ridiculous. What he said about Pakistan is the elaboration of his statements made during his election campaign speeches. And what has been said in the Kerry-Lugar bill. The difference was that the policy speech shows that Obama has now a better understanding about Pakistan’s concerns. And his tone is more responsible. I think the Americans were particularly cautious with the tone and tenor about Pakistan after the bitter experience from the reaction on the Kerry-Lugar bill’s language.

At the very outset of the speech, unlike Bush, he tried to appease the Muslims. While talking about terrorists, he says “these men belong to Al Qaeda – a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam one of the world’s great religions, to justify the slaughter of innocents.” So he is not out on a crusade like Bush, who foolishly gave it a religious colour by using a wrong term at wrong place.

By giving the withdrawal date he has also tried to reach out to the people who believe that US has come to Afghanistan to stay for some strategic reasons. But many in Pakistan, and his critics at home, are rightly skeptic that whether the job which could not be accomplished in the last eight years, can be quickly wrapped up in 18 months. Even Pakistan’s Foreign Minister feels that US should stay for another five years if they want to stabilise Afghanistan. And he is right. Obama has explained that by giving the deadline he wants to express “urgency” and to impress upon the Afghan people that they should prepare themselves to take the responsibility of their country as early as possible.

Another objective of giving this timeframe could be to use it as a negotiating point with the Taliban and show them that Americans don’t want to stay forever.  The Taliban leadership has been saying that they are fighting to get the foreign forces out of the country, so here is their carrot, if they are wise enough to bite it.

If they do then they have to enter through the backdoor of the Saudi palace diplomacy and accept that the way forward is to join the democratic process. Karzai’s sham democracy is rightly looked down upon by many Taliban supporters. But they have to also recognise that this imperfect democracy can only be evolved and no magic wand can turn into a developed democratic set up in a couple of years particularly when the country is facing an insurgency. At the same time the Taliban have to realise that the days when they could establish a fascist Islamic government are history. They have to soften up.

And who could influence them to climb down to reality? Of course this is where the role of Pakistan comes in. President Obama and many other world leaders have expressed time and again that the road to peace in Afghanistan goes through Pakistan. That’s why Obama said: “We will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.” To rest the fears of overzealous Pakistani patriot’s mind he has admitted: “In the past, we too often defined our relationship narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear…..going forward, the Pakistani people must know that America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.” (An attempt to solace those Manicheans who want US out of Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the same breath blame them for leaving the region after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces).

This assurance is meaningful particularly when General McChrystal has mentioned in his policy advisory that Pakistan is concerned about the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistani establishment feels that Afghan Taliban are playing perhaps their last card in that country. The present government of this war-ravaged country is distinctly pro-India because of years of investment by Delhi in the anti-Taliban forces. One major problem of Afghanistan is that both India and Pakistan are trying to use Afghanistan against each other instead of helping it. Pakistani establishment feels that as it has a common border with Afghanistan it should be its client state. Any increase in Indian influence in Afghanistan is seen by Islamabad establishment as an attempt to encircle it.

Through out the Pak-Afghan relations 60 years history, Pakistan has desired to have a protégé government in Kabul. It is this death-wish that has brought Pakistan to the present juncture. It is this attitude that has kept all Afghan governments unhappy with Pakistan, except for the brief period of primitive Pusthon-led Taliban government. Even Mullah Omar’s government did not decide the pending Durand line issue and when it came to choose between Pakistan its benefactor and Osama the liability, he elected for the latter.

Talk to any educated Afghan refugee anywhere in the world they are all praise for the people of Pakistan, but bitterly against our government for interfering in their internal affairs. General Ziaul Haq and General Akhtar, who started this game in Pakistan, died in the air leaving behind a highly weaponised Pakistan and their last remnant – General Hamid Gul. The country is still paying the price of their unpardonable follies. The trouble is that some in our Khaki establishment have still not moved away from this dream. It should be Afghan government’s prerogative to decide who they want to be close to, not ours. If we want to win them over it should be by helping them in getting the Taliban on the negotiations table and not by backing Mullah Omar – that is what the Americans are also looking for from us.

Perhaps Pakistan can deliver this because without its help Taliban cannot succeed in Afghanistan and they should know it. But in return Islamabad wants that the US should pressurise the reluctant Indians to work out a solution of the Kashmir issue with Pakistan. Pakistan has already moved away from its historic stance on Kashmir and is now willing to accept a solution that is acceptable to the Kashmiri people and that ensures smooth flow of water from the rivers assigned to it in the Indus Water Treaty. This is where we would like to invoke Obama’s assurance: “America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity.”

The chances are that the Jihadi organisations and some hawks in the establishment would like to continue with the old policy of nurturing militant organisations to keep the pressure on India and US. They are capable of pulling another Mumbai on us. So far we have lived dangerously. We nurtured the Afghan Taliban to extend our so-called strategic depth in Afghanistan. And now we want to bargain with the American on this chip. With India our establishment thinks it has the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish Mohammed’s trump card. Notwithstanding the fact that the other side has a much stronger game in their hand and we are many tricks down. It’s high time that the Pakistani establishment stops this bloody brinkmanship. Haven’t we bled enough to know that our policies are our follies? (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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