The “Af-Pak” policy announced by Obama on Dec 1 can be summed up in two words: escalate and expand. Firstly, it signals an escalation of the war in Afghanistan and of pressure on Islamabad to take tougher action against terrorist groups allegedly enjoying safe havens in Pakistan. Secondly, it forebodes the expansion of drone attacks and other US covert operations in Pakistan.
That is the bottom line of the new Afghanistan strategy. The rest is mostly either salesmanship to make it palatable to an increasingly skeptical home constituency or a combination of sticks and carrots to win the cooperation of Pakistan. The threat of sticks is immediate, while the carrots – the offer of a long-term bilateral “partnership” and the possibility of a more active role in promoting a resolution of Kashmir – are for the future. US involvement in Kashmir, moreover, would be unhelpful to the cause of azadi, because Washington favours a settlement which legitimises the Indian occupation of Kashmir in return for some cosmetic concessions.
As The New York Times wrote, the policy announced by Obama is “not so much a new strategy as a doubling down on the one he embraced earlier this year.” In January, when Obama became president, there were 34,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Presently, there are 71,000. The additional 30,000 pairs of boots that will be sent now will take troop level to more than 100,000. More than half of them will have been sent there by Obama. The war in Afghanistan has clearly become Obama’s war, just as that in Iraq was Bush’s war.
Obama is also conscious it could become his Vietnam, though in his speech he rejected this notion as a “false reading of history.” But the parallels are undeniable. Even more striking is the resemblance with the “surge” and the failed attempt at “Afghanisation” that preceded the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan two decades ago.
The number of American casualties – about 930 killed – is a fraction of that suffered by the Soviets, but the pressure it generates in a democracy like America is by no means negligible. The financial costs of the war are also rising. According to one estimate, a long-term commitment could cost anywhere from $500 billion to $900 billion over the next decade. The domestic pressure to end the war has been rising as the prospects of victory recede and costs multiply.
The Americans accept now that the Taliban cannot be wiped out. The present goal is not to defeat the Taliban but simply to “degrade” their power and secure major population centres, and to expand and train the Afghan army and police to enable them to take over the fighting themselves.
Obama’s dilemma is that while his domestic constituency expects him to bring the troops home as early as possible, his international credibility requires that they should remain in Afghanistan as long as al Qaeda has not been eliminated from the region and the Taliban remain a threat to the survival of the government in Kabul. US officials have therefore been emphasising that Obama has only given a date for the beginning of the withdrawal, not for its end. Even this timeline would be flexible, the initial withdrawal could be very limited and the pace of further withdrawals would be determined by “conditions on the ground.”
An immediate US pullout is not on the cards, but even its prospect could intensify the competition for influence and strategic gain among the regional players. India, in particular, has invested a lot in Afghanistan because it treats the country as its backyard which is crucial to the policy of encircling Pakistan and gaining strategic access to Central Asia. Although Washington is aware of operations by Indian intelligence agencies in Afghanistan, it has done little to restrain Delhi. In her testimony on Afghanistan before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Dec 2, Hillary Clinton appeared to concede an even bigger regional role to India when she named it among countries that shared the US objective of expanding support to Pakistan.
Since the additional forces being sent to Afghanistan will be deployed largely in the southern Pakhtun belt where the Taliban are strongest, the fear is that fighting there could push these fighters, as well as refugees, into Pakistan, especially Balochistan, and destabilise Pakistan’s border areas. The government has conveyed these apprehensions to the Americans. But it is unlikely that considerations of Pakistan’s stability will restrain the US from conducting operations it considers necessary from the military point of view. Pakistan must therefore continue to urge the US at least to do more to prevent cross-border movements on the border, now that it is building up its forces in the country.
The more direct and far more serious threat facing Pakistan comes from the planned expansion of covert and not-so-covert operations by the US on Pakistani soil, because they would destabilise not just the border areas but the entire country, with far-reaching consequences for the region. Washington has conveyed to Pakistan, in no uncertain terms, that if Pakistan does not act more aggressively against the Quetta Shura and against terrorist groups said to be in the country, the US will. American action would then be in the form of more strikes by drone aircraft, including in Balochistan, and covert ground raids by special operations forces, like that carried out in Jalal Khel in September 2008. As the saying goes, to a man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Evidently, Pakistan has to do a better job of making the Americans grasp the disastrous consequences of such a military escalation in Pakistan.
For good measure, Obama also raised the nuclear spectre in his speech and alluded to the possibility that Al Qaeda and other extremists could get access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. According to press leaks, Washington has also commissioned new intelligence studies on the vulnerability of Pakistani warheads and laboratories to seizure by extremists.
US warnings to Pakistan have been accompanied by some carrots. In a letter to Zardari last month, Obama offered an expanded strategic partnership, including enhanced military and economic cooperation, trade benefits and support for greater regional cooperation. US officials have reportedly spoken of the “unlimited potential” of this partnership and hinted that Washington would consider any proposal Islamabad puts on the table. Obama has also told a group of journalists that the reduction of tensions between Pakistan and India, though enormously difficult, was “as important as anything to the long-term stability of the region.” This suggests a willingness to play a discreet behind-the-scenes role on Kashmir.
Strategic partnership is a term which has become quite devalued through excessive use and, as with all packages, the important thing is not the label but the contents. In June 2004, Bush designated Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally, supposedly to signal a special security relationship. Many Pakistanis wondered what it meant. One year later, they received the answer, as Washington told Islamabad quite categorically that the ban on civilian nuclear cooperation that was being lifted for India would continue to apply to Pakistan.
Pakistan should now make it clear that it would take the offer of strategic partnership seriously only if it includes access to civilian nuclear cooperation on the same terms as those given to India. This should have been spelled out in the reply sent by Zardari to Obama’s letter. The issue should now be taken up by the prime minister in a letter to Obama and brought to the forefront of the bilateral agenda with Washington.
But we should stop requesting US involvement in a resolution of Kashmir, because any such intervention at the present time would be for a settlement on the lines of the deal that Musharraf was negotiating with Manmohan Singh and which would have legalised India’s occupation of the state.