December 03, 2009

The speech within the speech

K. Subrahmanyam

Posted: Thursday , Dec 03, 2009 at 0401 hrs

It will not be surprising if the initial reaction to Obama's Af-Pak strategy announced in his West Point speech on December 1 is one general lacking in enthusiasm, both in the US and abroad. He has agreed to the surge of 30,000 troops asked for by the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, General McChrystal. He has defended himself against the charge of dithering by pointing out that the General's proposal itself envisaged induction of troops only next year. The new points in his strategy over and above his March one are the following:

1. There will be a rapid surge of 30,000 US troops in 2010, to be followed by the beginning of withdrawal eighteen months later.

2. During this period, additional Afghan troops will be raised and trained to take over the responsibility from the US forces.

3. There will be improvements in civil administration in Afghanistan and stepping up of the infrastructure development with involvement of UN and other countries.

4. There is a promise of a longer term partnership with Pakistan going well beyond the period of operations against the extremists in the region. US will commit itself to the stability and prosperity of Pakistan. Islamabad is required to put in all-out efforts in eliminating all extremists.

All these may sound more of the same of what Obama spelt out in March. But if read with his other pronouncements, his letter to President Zardari and the Indo-US joint statement, it is clear that there are crucial elements in this strategy that hint at a new turn. He has spelt out very clearly as never before, the threat to the US from extremists in the Af-Pak area. He said, "This is no idle danger... no hypothetical threat... In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. The danger will only grow if the region slides backwards and al Qaeda can operate with impunity... And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear armed Pakistan because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons and we have every reason to believe that they would use them". By spelling out this danger he has sought to differentiate the Af-Pak case from Vietnam which never posed to US such threats.

The crux of the strategy is: during the surge of US troops in 2010-11, to build the Afghan capacity "that can allow a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan". There are speculations that India may be asked to shoulder this responsibility and Obama's telephone conversation with the Indian prime minister just before his speech might be related to this. It may be recalled that Pakistanis have expressed concern about an expanding Indian presence in Afghanistan and General McChrystal in his report had expressed his understanding of Pakistani concerns. However in the Indo-US joint statement, Obama appreciated India's role in reconstruction and rebuilding efforts and the two leaders agreed to enhance their respective efforts in this direction in Afghanistan. It is obvious that Obama has rejected Pakistan's concerns on the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Whether he will now go further and request Indian help to train Afghan troops, overriding Pakistani objections, remains to be seen. If he were to do so and if India were to respond positively, that will constitute a material change in the situation and a radical change in US strategy. At the same time, it is difficult to envisage alternative options for Obama to train such a large Afghan force in such a short period.

In the joint press conference with Prime Minister Singh, in reply to a question on his Af-Pak strategy Obama said: "..after eight years... it is my intention to finish the job". In his present speech he says: "we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan. We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But the same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan .That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border." It has been reported that Obama had written to Zardari a letter delivered by US National Security Adviser General Jones in the second half of November. In that letter, he had proposed a long term partnership with Pakistan and at the same time warned that ambiguity in Pakistan's relationship with any of the five extremist groups — al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Pakistani Taliban — could no longer be ignored.

Obama strategy appears to be to promise Pakistan long term partnership, at the same time compel it to act against all terrorist groups and build an Afghan army which will be able to defend Afghanistan against the Taliban. He is indicating that the US will not disengage, leaving a vacuum in Afghanistan. Pakistan is assured of long term help, provided it gives up its use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. He is aware that Pakistan is using terrorism as state policy not only against India and Afghanistan but against the US, UK and other countries as well. Hence the warning that the ambiguity of Pakistan's relationship with terrorist organisations could no longer be ignored. Though the speech at West Point appears soft on Pakistan, it is clear that the focus of the strategy is raising the Afghan force to enable responsible transition of US forces out of Afghanistan, warning on Pakistan's ambiguous relationship with terrorist organisations, and outlining the continuing threat to the US homeland.

Will the Pakistani Army respond constructively and cooperate, taking action against all terrorist organisations? Or will they defy the US? Economically, Pakistan is in no position to reject the US partnership offer, as was evident from their acceptance of the Kerry-Lugar Act despite all the fuss the army, among various others, made. The US has been successful in thwarting the numerous attempts at terroristic acts in the US homeland. The US has also stepped up its surveillance and monitoring of communications and moves of various terrorist organisations in the Af-Pak region. Some of the terrorist organisations like the Pakistani Taliban have already turned on the Pakistani state. Others, if they are thwarted in their activities against outsiders, may also turn on their erstwhile patrons. The Obama strategy is a challenge to the Pakistani Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence.

The writer is a senior defence analyst

1 comment:

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