India's limited options

Obamas Af-Pak strategy

Bob Woodward of the Watergate fame is back once again with his new book, ‘Obama’s Wars’. Despite the hype, there’s nothing in the book that is really shocking or revelatory. There is no analysis, commentary or policy assessment in the book, only narrative and an unyielding focus on relationships among its principal subjects.

What Woodward lays bare, however, are rifts at the highest echelons on decision-making in Washington over America’s mission and strategy in Afghanistan as well as vociferous and highly personal nature of policy disagreements.

Woodward’s book is largely a near-verbatim account of US National Security Council meetings last fall where the administration hashed out its Afghanistan policy. It should come as no surprise to learn that the Obama administration was deeply divided and riven with suspicions. America’s civilian and military leaders were divided on Afghanistan and the level of distrust between the two was so high that Obama ended up designing his own strategy.

Obama comes across as a cold, calculating decision-maker who ultimately decides to pander to his political base by including a deadline for withdrawal. He was frustrated with his military advisers who he felt were thwarting his search for an exit plan. In the end, all the US seems to have got is a plan to exit but no strategy to win the war.

Obama has been looking for a way out of Afghanistan ever since he took office. He has avoided talk of victory all along, suggesting that America needs a plan as to how to get out of Afghanistan.’ Looking for an exit, Obama took the extraordinary decision in December 2009 of sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan along with the announcement of an American withdrawal from July 2011.

It is now clear that this decision has led American adversaries to conclude that they simply had to wait out the Americans as the President’s heart is not in the war with no will to fight. What is equally confounding is the basis on which Obama made this decision. After repeatedly arguing during elections that Afghanistan was the ‘good’ war, the ‘necessary’ war, Obama started searching for an exit strategy because he couldn’t “lose the whole Democratic Party.” As Woodward argues, “He was looking for choices that would limit US involvement and provide a way out.”

The shadow of Vietnam looms large over the debate on Afghanistan strategy. The US Vice President Joe Biden, is said to be “pessimistic and more convinced than ever that Afghanistan was a version of Vietnam.” The President himself is reported to be so determined to avoid a Vietnam-like morass that he ends up writing his own strategy memo. An administration review of the Afghan war is scheduled for this December and it is unlikely to convince the Obama White House that America needs to win the war in Af-Pak.

Fear about Pakistan

Though Pakistan remains key to success in defeating the Taliban and eliminating al-Qaeda’s activities in the region, the Obama administration has grown impatient with Pakistan for its foot-dragging against the militant sanctuaries in border areas. Fears about Pakistan — a nuclear power with a fragile civilian government, a dominant military and an intelligence service that sponsored terrorist groups — have shaped the trajectory of Obama’s Af-Pak policy.

The US intelligence has been warning that not only does al-Qaeda and the Taliban continue to operate from safe havens within Pakistan but terrorist groups have also been recruiting westerners to wreak havoc in Europe and North America.

For Obama the reason to create a secure, self-governing Afghanistan was to prevent the spread of the ‘cancer’ from Pakistan. Pakistan’s main priority has been to take on its home grown branch of the Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP). But the links between TTP and other terrorist organisations are much too evident to ignore. The US has also pressured Pakistan on Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).

India will have to fight its own battles. The US will start moving out of Afghanistan next year. As a consequence, Indian footprint in Afghanistan should increase if it wants to preserve its vital interests. Pakistani military has become adept at the double game they are playing with Washington. It recognises that America’s reliance on Pakistan is at an all time high and it will extract its pound of flesh from the West.

As the threat of instability increases, the centrality of Pakistani military is only likely to grow. And given the well-known anti-India views of Pakistani army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, New Delhi would be fooling itself if it believes that negotiations with Islamabad are likely to lead to any sort of a desirable outcome.

Much like General David Petraeus, many in India also continue to believe that America will retain a substantive presence in Afghanistan as long as the mess in Af-Pak is not sorted out. But Woodward makes it clear that this is a dramatic misreading of President Obama. He means when he says that America is not in the business of nation-building over the next 20 years.

India will be facing some tough choices in the coming months. It will have to raise its game if it wants to retain any relevance in the evolving strategic milieu in Af-Pak.

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