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Afghanistan and the 'Age of Obama'

December 01, 2009 15:14 IST

M K Bhadrakumar on what the US and India should do to stabilise Afghanistan and rein in rogue elements in Pakistan.

When we discuss the 'Af-Pak strategy', we tend to emphasise a 'regional approach'. The argument goes that for stabilising Afghanistan, you need to stabilise Pakistan; for stabilising Pakistan, you should push India to take steps to alleviate Pakistan's threat perceptions and sense of insecurity; and, this, of course, means addressing Kashmir issue.

That is, if only India 'cooperates', Pakistan's strategic anxiety can be eased and its military leadership can concentrate on tackling its internal challenges and help the international community vanquish the Taliban insurgents and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

It is a persuasive argument. But it is not only flawed but also couched in sophistry.

True, the war in Afghanistan and the strong current of 'anti-Americanism' in Pakistan exacerbated the internal security situation in Pakistan, but the crisis is deep-rooted and is essentially, the tragic culmination of Pakistan's reliance on militant non-state actors with fundamentalist religious affiliation as an instrument of state policy.

With regard to Afghanistan, much before the jihad in the 1980s, Pakistan had already begun using Islamist proxies for its projection of power. Let us recall the mediatory efforts by the Shah of Iran in Afghan-Pakistan relations.

It was in 1973 that the then prime minister Zulifikar Ali Bhutto provided sanctuary to Islamist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with a view to undermine the established government in Kabul. That was four years prior to the Communists take-over in Afghanistan and six years before the Soviet intervention.

The Pakistani subversion of Afghanistan used Sunni Islamists drawn from the Pashtun community. This was a deliberate policy with a long-term objective of undercutting Pashtun nationalism, which was broadly secular-minded and based on traditional tribal structures and identity.

Pakistan views Pashtun nationalism as an existential threat and this has been at the root of the 60-year history of its blatant interference in the neighbouring country's internal affairs. Since the Pashtunistan issue is an explosive subject linked to Pakistan's state formation and its 2500-kilometre disputed border with Afghanistan, no one wants to talk about it.

Suffice to say that though Pakistan is perpetually in a denial mode, it is well-established that Pakistani military's support continues for the Afghan Taliban (whose leadership gets sanctuary in Pakistan), as well as for Islamist terrorist groups operating against India.

Therefore, what happened in the post-2004 period is actually a blowback from the Pakistani policies. The Al Qaeda, the 'foreign fighters' and the Afghan Taliban who were driven out of Afghanistan in 2001 took shelter in Pakistan's tribal areas where they merged with local Islamist militant groups. This combination ousted the local administration, by physically eliminating officials and tribal leaders.

It consolidated by tapping into longstanding local grievances, but the primary factor behind the 'Talibanisation' was the lack of a national strategy to counter it, compounded by military rule and the military's ambivalence about using force against groups that were its allies.

Indeed, Pakistan played an extremely dangerous game insofar as the militant groups operating against India are also tightly allied to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and the Al Qaeda. These networked relationships have lately surfaced in the numerous terrorist strikes within Pakistan.

Why is Pakistan on a suicidal path? In a nutshell, Pakistan lacks the will to eliminate these dangerous forces. These militant groups are regarded as 'assets' by the Pakistani military in a future covert war against India or Afghanistan. Quite clearly, Pakistan's variegated approach to the terrorist groups is the heart of the matter today.

Pakistani interests and the US interests in Afghanistan do not converge. This fundamental contradiction largely led to the failure of the Af-Pak strategy. Left to the Pakistani military, the question of abandoning its tie-up with the Taliban and affiliates of Al Qaeda such as the Haqqani network, does not arise.

Unfortunately, as acute political instability surfaces once again in Pakistan, the military is shrewdly calibrating the crisis so that it calls the shots on crucial areas of foreign and security policy. History is repeating itself in Pakistan.

In fact, India's threat perception today is that Pakistani militants under pressure from the army now have a strong incentive to instigate an escalation of tensions between Islamabad and Delhi. The Financial Times of London recently quoted a diplomat as saying, 'If they [Pakistani military] could provoke an Indian response -- and generate India-Pakistan tension -- Pakistanis' attention would be diverted'.

Yet, there are analysts who conclude this logjam arises because of the Pakistani threat perceptions regarding India's intentions and capabilities. They ask: how can India help? They propound a 'grand bargain'. I profoundly disagree. No country can 'bargain' over its national security -- neither the US nor India.

A Gallup poll shows whereas 60 percent of Pakistanis view the US as its main 'enemy', the figure is 18 percent for India, followed by Taliban at 11 percent. Doesn't it say something? No one can claim India is taking advantage out of Pakistani military's current re-deployment from the eastern border to the Afghan border.

The Kashmir issue is symptomatic of a far deeper distrust or apprehension on the Pakistani military's part, which is related to India's emergence as a regional power and an aspiring global power. How can India mitigate Pakistani apprehensions? India considers its aspiration as an extra-regional power to be legitimate, commensurate with the growing size of its economy, its population and its overall standing in the world community.

The prominent South Asia expert, Christina Fair brilliantly analysed the paradigm in a recent testimony before the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee: 'Pakistan's beliefs about India transcend the Kashmir issue. These fears are likely to become more acute as India continues its defence modernisation buoyed by its economic growth, deepens its ties with Pakistan's neighbours, and continues to enjoy strategic ties with the United States, Israel, and Russia among other countries. In contrast, Pakistan's economic woes, its concatenation of governance crises, past nuclear proliferation, and other dangerous policies threaten to isolate Pakistan as a continuous source of international insecurity.'

What is needed, therefore, is a 'recondition' by the US, of the Pakistani military's own perceptions of the costs and benefits of its current policies. But this has become hard to achieve because of the criticality of Pakistani role in the Af-Pak strategy.

What lies ahead? There are several templates.

One, a robust counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan will only mean continued heavy reliance on Pakistan's cooperation, which, as experience shows, Pakistan will exploit to its advantage. Being a great beneficiary of the war in Afghanistan in financial terms and from US military aid, Pakistan's best interests lie in ensuring that a viable 'exit strategy' does not appear on the horizon for the international community.

Two, the focus should turn towards a strategy of counter-terrorism with rapid Afghanisation, namely, transfer of responsibility to the Afghans. All the help that other regional countries are able to offer to accelerate the Afghanisation process must be welcomed.

Three, with all the imperfections of the situation, Hamid Karzai's government should be strengthened. The continuing attempts to debunk and discredit Karzai are highly unwise. Western-style democracy or legitimacy and human rights are not the main issues today. Afghanistan should be viewed in its cultural and historical context.

Karzai's coalition-building needs to be viewed realistically. For the foreseeable future, Afghanisation will need to involve the so-called warlords who are allied to Karzai. There simply is no alternative.

Four, the agenda should be to transform the war to its pre-2001 form as quickly as possible, namely, a civil war stemming from a fratricidal strife. The international community should incrementally confine itself to dealing with the established Afghan government.

That is to say, there is an imperative need to visualise the vacation of foreign occupation of Afghanistan within a definable timeline. The earlier this is done, the better. The Taliban propaganda that it represents resistance to foreign military presence is steadily gaining ground among the Afghan people. Foreign occupation may have already become untenable.

Five, there is no doubt whatsoever that enduring peace is possible only if there is an inclusive settlement that includes the Taliban. But, here again, the current approach to engage the Taliban via the good offices of the Pakistani intelligence is extremely short-sighted and dangerous. Such an approach hands over to the Pakistani military the full leverage in any political process that lies ahead and it can have only one predictable outcome.

The Afghan reconciliation must come out of an intra-Afghan initiative. The US must be gracious enough to give up the centre-stage. The Afghans have their traditional methods of dialogue and reconciliation. Karzai must spearhead the reconciliation process. Instead of sniping at his idea of a Loya Jirga (meeting of elders), its potential should be explored.

Six, the attempt should be to 'liberate' the Taliban from the Pakistani clutches. In the ultimate analysis, the Afghan-ness of the Taliban is bound to surface if it is provided the opportunity. It is precisely this Afghan-ness that Pakistan fears the most.

Thus, the Pakistani strategy has been to develop a mystique about the Taliban and to keep it fragmented and totally under its control. It is only Afghan groups, therefore, who can break this syndrome. The battle lines in Afghanistan have never been clear-cut. Karzai has allies who can reach out to the Taliban. They must be given a free hand.

Finally, the success of any Afghan strategy lies in the US's capacity to compel Pakistan from supporting the militant groups. Let us hope President Obama forthrightly addresses the issue of forcing Pakistan to give up terrorism as state policy.

True, it is a catch-22 situation today. But it can be broken by shifting the prioritisation from Afghanistan to the Pakistan theatre and by refocusing the resources. Integral to this is a turning away from the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan towards a realistic near-term counter-terrorism approach.

Adapted from speech delivered by M K Bhadrakumar at the international conference, 'The Age of Obama: From the Mediterranean to the Greater Middle East' organised by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies & Fondazione Italianieuropei, Rome, November 30.

M K Bhadrakumar