US President Barack Obama revealed the much anticipated “Af-Pak” strategy today in Washington. The text of the speech is certainly more candid than previous Bush-era speeches. But how different is this strategy really to what has already been tried and tested?
“So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.”
Notice how the “clear and focused” goal makes no mention of the Taliban. The goal now appears to be to aggressively pursue and incapacitate al Qaeda in the region. On the face of it, rendering al Qaeda inoperable is no different from GWB’s own strategy; the one difference now is that the US has “boots on the ground” and is far less reliant on assistance from the ISI. Why wasn’t the Taliban mentioned? Well, because it gives the United States enough wiggle-room to play the “divide and conquer” game that the West has played so well in Asia and Africa: i.e., play the “good” Taliban against the “bad” Taliban. Pit Mullah Omar against Baitullah Mehsud. And Baitullah Mehsud against Maulana Fazlullah. This strategy is going to be challenged in the coming weeks, as Mullah Omar and Mehsud appear to have patched up their differences, as reported in The New York Times.
The plan to go after al Qaeda and the “bad” Taliban without prior Pakistani consent was implemented in November 2008 and will continue to be part of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy. The added goal of holding Pakistan accountable to action reflects Washington’s exasperation with Pakistan’s double handed game, something that India knows all too well. The United States’ strategy towards Pakistan will basically include:
- Extending non-military aid by way of the Kerry-Lugar bill ($1.5 billion) and through other international fora. A bad idea, as the lack of transparency in the dissemination of funds invariably results in Pakistan using the money to arm itself against India, or grease politicians’ pockets;
- Pressuring India to take the initiative in restarting the “peace process” with Pakistan;
- Working with Gen. Kayani on coordinating attacks in NWFP and Baluchistan, while paying lip-service to the civil government and democracy.
In Afghanistan, Obama will deploy an additional 17,000 troops to counter the insurgency, particularly in Helmand province, where the British have been taking heavy fire. In addition, there will be another 4,000 troops designated to train Afghani security forces to counter the “uncompromising core of the Taliban”, basically the Taliban who refuse to be bought by the US.
The forging of the “Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan”, whose members include the US, several Arab states, Central Asian republics, Russia, China, Iran and India shows a shift from the NATO/”coalition of the willing” dominated mandate of GWB’s policies. How effective this new contact group will be will remain to be seen, but there now appears to be a realization in Washington that the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be decided without consensus from regional powers like Iran and India. In the past, because of Washington’s allergy to Iran, the Islamic republic was never consulted on Afghanistan. Similarly, because of Pakistan’s objections, India was never consulted on either Pakistan or Afghanistan. The thinking has clearly changed.
However, the gaping hole in the Af-Pak strategy is the exclusion of Punjabi terror outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayiba. These groups present a clear and direct threat to Washington’s goal of strengthening civilian government in Pakistan and to security in India. Whether because they were blind sighted by the situation in NWFP (unlikely) or because of Pakistan’s insistence, these groups were not included as part of the Obama administration’s strategy. The exclusion of these groups in the US’s Af-Pak strategy is a perpetuation of the fallacies of the Bush era.
Which brings me back to my original question — what is Obama’s real objective in Af-Pak? Is it to keep things relatively quiet in Pakistan for a period of time to allow the US to affect a less than ignominious exit from Afghanistan? Or is it to comprehensively engage with the Pakistanis to eradicate terrorism from the region and build a credible and stable civilian government? If it is the latter, it cannot be achieved without Washington’s committment to act against terror groups that operate in heartland Pakistan. Despite utterances to the contrary, the US’s strategy seems to betray an intention to use and dispose of Pakistan, much like it did after the Soviet-Afghan war. An “Af-Pak” strategy is fine. But the question on Indian security analysts’ minds will be: “To what end?”