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Seismic Waves of President Obama's Af-Pak Policy

In a manner, US President Barack Obama’s Af-Pak policy resembles Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel “A Moveable Feast”, based on the lives of Paris intellectuals. High on philosophy and contradictions, the well-meaning observers and interpreters of life never found a solution.

Obama inherited the quicks and of Pakistan-Taliban infested Afghanistan from his Republican predecessor George W. Bush. If there was an end game in sight, it was never really addressed or included in the calculations. President Bush had a single minded objective-to root out the Al Qaeda and Taliban responsible for the devastating attack on the USA, the “9/11” incident as it is popularly known. In some manner, sections of the Bush administration reportedly threatened Pakistan that it would be bombed to the “Stone Age” if they continued to support the Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

President Obama’s policy on both Afghanistan and Pakistan have periodically demonstrated determination, but returned to withdrawal and “flip-flop”. His strategy has already been revised three times, and a fourth phase is evolving.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning following the failed bomb attack at New York’s Times square recently, that there will b e severe consequences for Islamabad if such attacks were traced back to Pakistan, has not been taken very seriously by the Pak military establishment and its surrogate government. Ms. Clinton’s follow up statement that the US had knowledge that some Pakistani officials knew where the terrorist leaders were, is also nothing new. The US officials have said this before and, towards the end of his tenure, President Bush and his intelligence and defence chiefs had elaborately detailed the nexus between the Pak army and the terrorists.

The Pakistani establishment and the Taliban were well aware that the US was looking for an exit road from Afghanistan. President Obama reinforced this fact when he spoke to the press, standing with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (May 13, Washington) that US troops withdrawal will start from mid-2011. Just before this statement, Hillary Clinton tried to soften the pitch saying that this did not mean the US will abandon Afghanistan.

Most of the policy wonks in the Obama administration are woefully uneducated in the history, culture and the tribal equations in Afghanistan. They are still deeply embedded in the shallow cold war matrix when Pakistan and the Taliban sided with them during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This is an alarming state of mind, where India is seen as an unnecessary impediment in Afghanistan. This was evident when commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal in his six-month review last year, said India was doing a good job with its development programmes in Afghanistan, and was popular among the people. But McChrystal added that this would attract retaliation from Pakistan.

The Obama mantra suggests snarling at Pakistan when it goes too much out of line, but pampering it to keep it on its feet and procure some co-operation against the Pak based terrorists and militants. It was after a lot of pressure that the US succeeded in making Pakistan admit the existence of the “Quetta Shura”, Taliban’s highest committee based in Quetta, Balochistan.

While the Pakistani army has taken some decisive action in South Wazirstan against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), they have been hesitant to launch a cleaning drive in North Waziristan, and there are no signs if any action will be taken against the Quetta Shura and the Taliban hideouts in the region, where Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda top leaders are suspected to be hiding.

The action against the TTP was taken as the organization has been targeting the Pakistani government and the army. The TTP demands Pakistan totally dissociate with the US in every form. In the other areas, Pakistan’s friends like the main Taliban and the Haqqani group exist. The Pak army top brass are known to espouse the policy that the Taliban and the Haqqanis are their assets in Afghanistan.

True, some Taliban leaders like Mullah Baradar have been apprehended by Pakistan. This happened more by accident than by design in joint operations with US agents. While American officials say they are getting valuable information from Baradar through Pakistani interrogators they are yet to get direct access to him. Pakistan has refused to hand over Baradar to the Afghan government though he is an Afghan citizen.

It is also known that detained militants are released quietly by the authorities when the issue moves out of public attention. We can expect similar action in the case of Mullah Baradar and other top level Taliban detained. This may be one reason that the Taliban has not retaliated against Pakistan in any manner.

There are indications, however, that the US may be hiding Pakistani misdemeanors in the war against terrorism. This will, ultimately, be a self defeating strategy.

In the context of India and Pakistan in the entire war on terrorism, US actions have raised some serious questions. India has no problem with the US and the Pakistan Club giving aid to Pakistan for development, poverty alleviation, education and in other such civilian area. It also has no problems with the US giving military assistance to Pakistan to counter terrorism.

But India has a huge problem when in this atmosphere and under the head of counter-terrorism assistance, the US provides Pakistan with military equipment like F-16 fighter aircraft and PC-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft which are not anti-terrorism military equipment but India centric.

The US is also to decide finally what types of drone and drone technology it proposes to transfer to Pakistan. There is a huge number of American drones active in the Af-Pak border areas taking out militant targets. Washington must assess this transfer against the seriousness of India-Pakistan relations.

The American approach to terrorism originating from Pakistan and targeting India leaves much to be desired. Pakistan moved a few paces to arrest some Lashker-e-Toiba (LET) senior cadres involved in Mumbai terrorist attack, or the “26/11” mayhem that killed 168 people including foreigners. But the moving spirit behind the LET and “26/11” carnage, Maulana Hafiz Saeed remains free and continues to do what he can do best – spent vitriolic anti-Indianism and, perhaps, plan move attacks on India.

The American agencies arrested David Headley, who mapped the Indian targets for the LET. His confessions have evidence that serving Pakistani military officers were involved in the plot, as intercepts by Indian agencies during the “26/11” siege revealed. But the US Justice Department has been dragging its feet in giving Indian agencies access to Headley. Why?

In another inexplicable move, a new US-China forum on South Asia was formed in Beijing (May 02, 2010). The Chinese decided to maintain a low profile on the issue for now, and publicized US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, Blake’s statement that invited China to involve itself in the peace and stability of south Asia from Afghanistan to India and elsewhere in the subcontinent.

The US has willfully extended the Af-Pak issue not only to South Asia, but also Central Asia because this region is a sufferer from the Af-Pak created problems.

China has been keen to enter Afghanistan but not necessarily with the US. China’s policy is to ride with Pakistan in Afghanistan as it did during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. As an Indian saying goes China wants to “catch the fish but not wet its feet”.

With China in Afghanistan with US support, India’s presence in development projects in Afghanistan will come under greater pressure – not from the Afghan government and people, but from Pakistani sponsored terrorist operations against Indian missions there, as has been disclosed now by the Afghan government.

The Americans are acutely aware of China’s counter-terrorism policy. It centers only on the Uighur Muslim separatists of Xinjiang. On other terrorist activities like that of the LET which targets India, the Chinese are happy to stay away. Washington will not take into account the fact that the Chinese have a friendly line with the Taliban, because the cold warriors in Washington have decided to remain “blind”.

The Americans were exasperated by the wide spread corruption under President Hamid Karzai’s government. Matters came to a head in March-April this year resulting in sharp exchanges between the two sides. Hillary Clinton and President Obama’s advisors finally realized that Karzai was a factor that cannot be ignored or replaced, and Karzai was given a warm welcome on his May 12-17 visit at the invitation of the US President.

The Americans are yet to understand the socio-political roots of a tribal and clan ruled society such as Afghanistan. Corruption is nothing new and cannot be eradicated by western democratic concepts. The trick is to manage all forces, and that can only be done by Afghans through Loya Jirgas – conclave of tribal leaders and elders.

President Karzai should certainly be aware that incompetence and petty corruption of his administration is going against him. But the King that he may be, the King is becoming a prisoner of the follies of his trusted people, especially his half brother Wali Karzai.

When the US and coalition forces leave there will be havoc in Afghanistan. Interested parties like the Pakistani army and the ISI will pour into Afghanistan, with China also seeking a strategic position in the country. It could also create a divide with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leaders who are now at loggerheads with Karzai over election malpractices. If this happens, as is likely to, the Al Qaeda will get a new life. In coordinating with the Taliban, Pakistan will be compelled to pay the price of Al Qaeda’s protection. After all, the Al Qaeda has not turned against Pakistan.

That is why, the American policy on the Af-Pak game is tending towards creating strategic and security seismic waves widely in concentric circles. There will be no winners.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst with many years of experience in political analysis. He can be reached at

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