Sunday, November 16, 2008

Obama and Afghanistan: The Hindu's Dangerous Policy Advice

Today's editorial 'Obama and Afghanistan' is quite off the mark in both assertions and hopes.

President-elect Barack Obama does seem to understand that greater attention needs to be paid to the non-military dimensions of the policy that the United States has pursued in Afghanistan. He has indicated that he is not averse to the nascent attempts to establish contacts with moderate elements of the Taliban and is said to be inclined to include Iran in the ambit of the peace-making efforts in the region. His focus is likely to incorporate an emphasis on boosting socio-economic development efforts in the war-torn country. Few would dispute that all these steps are not just necessary but long overdue.

I do not quite see any major shift in the US Afghan strategy at this point. Contacting the moderate Taliban in an attempt to win them over has been going on (off and on actually) for some time now and there is nothing new about that. Bringing Iran into the picture would be an important shift but is not going to happen anytime soon until American engagement with Iran picks up and leads to major confidence-building measures. Boosting socio-economic development is something that has been tried since 2001 - millions have poured into development activities in the NWFP and the tribal areas. In fact, the region has not seen the kind of construction ever since the first Afghan war winded down following the departure of the Soviet Union in 1989. I fail to see what exactly Obama is going to change in all of this. It seems more like The Hindu wants to deny George Bush the credit for these steps.

Even the Bush administration, which has for too long been overly dependent on strong-arm methods, appears to be waking up to reality since it has ordered an intensive inter-departmental reappraisal of available intelligence in order to generate a range of options for its successor. But while all this is to the good, there is a risk that the “Obama effect” on international affairs could derail the process of evolving a more nuanced approach.

The Hindu wants a 'nuanced' approach instead of a strong-armed one. What exactly is this alternative?

Over the past year and more, U.S. military commanders in charge of this theatre have tried to persuade NATO allies to contribute more troops to the Afghan operations. These efforts have not met with much success because the allies were fearful of being roped into supporting roles for the Bush administration’s belligerence. However, with Mr. Obama soon to take office,there are indications that the allies might relent.

The paper is worried that European countries might contribute troops and the outlook for the anti-Taliban forces might actually improve! By the way, its explanation for European reluctance to contribute troops is not really the Bush administration's belligerence. Even European countries realize that stabilizing Afghanistan is in their interest. It is more their inability to do so - the small families and falling birth rates in European countries have made the people fearful of losing their only children. Coupled with the pacifist sentiment of a continent still recoiling from the horrors of the two world wars, public antipathy to any greater role in the Afghan conflict has made it difficult for their governments to get involved any further. Owing to these domestic reasons, The Hindu can stop worrying - it is unlikely that a lot of additional help will be forthcoming even to an Obama administration. In fact, press reports indicate that their diplomats have already signaled to his advisers not to expect it and therefore to avoid asking them in the first place.

If there is a substantial increase in the number of U.S. and NATO troops on the ground, tactical options such as raids on Taliban and Al Qaeda hide-outs across the Durand Line, would become more feasible. The question is whether at that point in time Mr. Obama will be able to resist resorting to the “bad cop” part of the Afghan strategy he outlined during the course of the election campaign. NATO-member states and other allies are highly unlikely to contribute more troops unless there is clear agreement on the rules of engagement. It is inconceivable that any of them, including the United Kingdom, would allow its troops to be used for military operations inside Pakistan’s territory. The allies would prefer to be involved only in programmes to train Kabul’s security forces although some might agree to participate in counter-insurgency operations. However, their presence would provide scope for the U.S. military to consider more adventurist options. The international community has a responsibility to clearly define the limits of intervention in this context so that Mr. Obama is warned against succumbing to pressure for an adventurist strategy well before he finalises his Afghan policy.

So The Hindu is worried that Obama might pursue an adventurist policy! He might be tempted to cross the Durand line and attack inside northwest Pakistan. And horror of horrors, NATO support might tacitly lead him to it! No. The Hindu would prefer him to limit US involvement strictly to the north of the Durand line much like our own failed counter-insurgency strategy in Kashmir. For over a decade and a half, the Indian army fought terrorist infiltration in Kashmir but was unable to end the scourge because of the constant flow of infiltrators freshly trained in PoK camps managing to cross the LoC to enter the Indian side. What was the success rate with that strategy? Quite poor if I remember correctly. The rate of infiltration ebbed and flowed but never stopped. Now The Hindu wants Obama to replicate the same failed strategy to fight the Taliban - never mind that leading terrorists remain happily ensconced in their mansions on the outskirts of Peshawar and firmly in control of some of the major towns like Bajaur and Swat but America has an absolute obligation to respect Pakistani territorial sovereignty and must under no circumstances act against these people even if they are dedicated to reviving the Taliban in Afghanistan.

If there is one thing that has goaded the Pakistani military into action in recent times, it is the fear of the alternative, namely the threat of unilateral American attack. American drones are already attacking Taliban safehouses as part of a less-than-secret agreement with the Pakistani military. Now The Hindu wants to abandon this strategy that with all its pitfalls has yielded mixed results in favor of one that is guaranteed to fail. The results of course would be no less than disastrous for India. Were the Taliban to succeed in maintaining their strength in all their current strongholds, it not only spells doom for the Karzai government but will be such a morale booster to the Kashmiri fighters that India can expect a renewed and resurgent insurgency at our doorstep ready to go all the way with even more potent weaponry and a much more ambitious agenda that will aim at nothing less than dismemberment of India.

Clearly, the paper is very anxious to lay the groundwork for such a calamitous future. Obama though is very smart and his advisers are surely better informed than to accept such stupid and dangerous advice. He has promised in the past that the Afghan war is an important priority for him and he will do everything to ensure that the region is stabilized. Today he reiterated that his aim is to wind down troops in Iraq so as to be able to make more provisions to send them to Afghanistan. In light of what India has invested in the Karzai dispensation, that is a welcome step which sends a message of continued engagement in this volatile region. The Hindu's advice of course needs to be treated with the contempt it deserves.

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