There is no doubt United States President Barack Obama had a difficult task to perform in making his long-awaited Afghanistan speech recently. There has been a clamour of different voices urging him to take every position, from digging in for the long term all the way to an immediate withdrawal, and the only option Obama really had was to take a median position that would certainly disappoint large sections of his voters.
In a sense, the speech turned out to be a bit of a damp squib: It must be extremely unsatisfying to officer cadets at West Point (America's premier military academy) to be told that their nation was effectively in a war it could not win. And that the only thing to do was to find a face-saving exit. Besides, it really didn't say anything new other than the laying out of a time-frame for the exit.
It was common knowledge all along that the Obama Af-Pak plan was simple: 'Surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell.'
The bribery plan has taken more concrete steps now. Hillary Clinton announced that there were 'non-violent Taliban' (isn't that a contradiction in terms?), and therefore one has to presume the Americans are busy figuring out which are the 'good Taliban' (hint: Those not attacking the Pakistani army). These are the ones to bribe before the part about declaring victory loudly and heading for the exit.
One has to sympathise with Obama, who is in a bit of a spot. Two unwinnable wars are draining his treasury. The financial meltdown and related fallout has hit his economy hard. His hard-core supporters are wondering when he will deliver on his campaign rhetoric of change and hope, because so far there has been little change and not much hope. The fence-sitters are beginning to desert him, as the results of mid-term elections and opinion polls suggest. For someone who is in permanent campaign mode, this is altogether disturbing.
The timing of the pullout from Afghanistan, naturally, is intended to give Obama sound-bites for the mid-term elections in 2012.
Afghanistan is, alas, looking more and more like Vietnam; even the blame game, where suddenly the Americans seem to have discovered that their hand-picked man, Hamid Karzai, is the fount of all corruption, is like Vietnam. The generals in Afghanistan are not filing enthusiastic and breathless forecasts like Westmoreland did in Vietnam, however: they are, perhaps because of more widespread information, less optimistic and probably more realistic about what can be achieved.
The root cause of the problem in Afghanistan, unlike in Iraq, is simple: The Americans are labouring mightily to ignore the elephant in the living room, Pakistan's agenda. It is as clear as daylight to the casual observer that Pakistan has no interest whatsoever in bringing stability to Afghanistan, in preventing the Taliban from coming back to power there, or in capturing Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives: And these are the alleged reasons why the Americans are in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has clearly articulated its pursuit of strategic depth which, for instance, involves having a Plan B even if its major cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, close to the Indian border, are obliterated in a possible Indian nuclear second strike (after Pakistan has wiped out Delhi and Mumbai in a first strike). They want to regroup from Afghanistan and continue their jihad against India from there.
The Taliban, of course, are Pakistani army and ISI soldiers dressed in baggy pants and beards for the occasion. The fact that alleged seminary students (who the Taliban are supposed to be) suddenly started driving tanks and flying planes is indirect evidence that they were trained soldiers. Therefore, Taliban rule in Kabul means Pakistan has achieved its strategic depth.
Clearly, they have no desire to fight or eliminate the Taliban, despite the fact that some factions (such as the one from the Mehsud tribe) have begun to inconvenience Pakistan through a campaign of suicide bombings.
Dead Pakistani civilians are considered acceptable collateral damage by the ISI, but their attacks on the military apparatus is a big no-no. They are clearly 'bad Taliban', and will not get any share of the spoils.
The fact that the Americans condone Pakistani support for the Taliban was made most evident during the siege of Kunduz some years ago. It was evident to observers then that the massive airlift of besieged Taliban -- allegedly hundreds of senior officers were rescued from the advancing Northern Alliance with the full knowledge of the CIA -- was an effort to hide the evidence about ISI involvement with the Taliban. They allowed the alleged Taliban to escape to Islamabad and resume their day jobs as brigadiers and colonels in the Pakistani Army and the ISI.
If the Northern Alliance, then in full cry, had been able to capture or liquidate these officers, it would have broken the backbone of the Taliban war effort.
A recent report from the US Senate accused the then-leaders of the war effort, Donald Rumsfeld and General Petraeus, of a signal failure in late 2001: Apparently the Senate has found that it would have been entirely possible to capture Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains then, if only a large force of American troops had been deployed in search operations, instead of the few hundreds.
All this brings into sharp focus the nexus between the CIA and the ISI. (The more recent story of Daood Gilani alias David Headley, who has been charged with criminal conspiracy for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, also suggests unholy connections between the two).
There are some seriously opaque things going on between the Americans and the Pakistanis, and the billions paid by the Bush and Obama administration have vanished without a trace. (With their friend Robin Raphel now in charge of disbursing funds, the ISI must be breaking out the champagne -- such incredible good luck!)
So long as the Americans are willing to subscribe to the fiction that Pakistanis are serious about fighting terrorism, there is no way that Pakistan can lose. As a result, the planned departure of the Americans in 2011 should be welcome news for Indians.
Presumably, once they leave, as they did after the Soviet debacle in the 1980s, Americans will lose interest in Pakistan and cease to write them blank cheques (which usually end up killing Indians).
However, as General McChrystal suggested recently, chances are that the US is going to lean on India to 'make concessions on Kashmir', to stop its humanitarian operations in Afghanistan and to close its consulates there. Pakistan has alleged that Indians are interfering in Baluchistan -- which I hope they are, but it is unlikely: a former prime minister, in a burst of misplaced enthusiasm, gutted the RAW counter-intelligence operations there.
The first sign of this pressure is already evident in the UPA government's announcement of large troop withdrawals from J&K, leaving it to the local police, whose sympathies are not necessarily with the Indian nation.
The reality of American sentiment was demonstrated by Richard Holbrooke who held a cringing press conference to assure Pakistanis that there was no tilt towards India. Clearly in Afghan War 2.0, America is going to be ever more dependent on the tender mercies of the ISI.
Obama concluded his speech with the mantra -- regarding Pakistan -- of 'mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust.' The cynic in me thinks Obama better lock up the family silver, as he is deluding himself regarding Pakistan's fundamentalist kleptocrats.
Besides, the exit timeline -- even though it does not mean all troops leave then, and there has been a lot of 'clarifications' that even the date is not cast in stone -- implies that the Americans have no stomach to fight on any longer in Afghanistan beyond 2011. This, in effect, means they have been defeated.
The essence of military strategy is to demoralise the enemy by all means possible, and from that perspective Taliban psy-ops have won. This will be a significant morale-booster to the jihadis: they can legitimately claim to have defeated both the Soviets and the Americans. This will embolden their triumphalist attacks on US targets, and on India.
The Americans have a difficult choice, caught as they are with no really attractive options. Add to this Obama's personal preferences, wherein his tendency is to be an internationalist, and to jaw-jaw where Bush may have gone for war-war.
It is not clear that these are bad things per se, but it remains to be seen whether they are the right things for this war, or for the colder war against China. There is an element of 'paralysis by analysis', and some have begun to call Obama the 'Great Ditherer'.
There is a worst case scenario: The possibility that, given the deadline of 18 months that Obama has outlined for the beginning of the exit, there will be a headlong and ignominious retreat from Kabul. I remember the photographs from Saigon in 1975 with the last helicopters taking off from the American embassy with people desperately hanging on. Vietnam scarred America's soul, but Communism did not win, and the Domino Theory turned out to be wrong: Communists are susceptible to the charms of the market.
The Afghan game is altogether different: It may crush America's soul. If the jihadis gain sustenance from the American defeat there, there will be no respite: They will keep on attacking, as they are not easily distracted from their goal of global dominance, which they believe is within their grasp. Indeed they may be right, because there is a short window of opportunity when vast petro-dollars are at their disposal. The near-default of sovereign debt in Dubai shows that the petro-dollars may well be ephemeral, and that they had better strike when the iron is hot.
America is clearly suffering from imperial overreach. Not that America is a ruined country, but compared to the can-do and supremely confident nation it was a few years ago -- the sole hyperpower proclaiming the end of history -- it is suffering from serious self-doubt, and it is beginning to see the shadows of decline everywhere, even in its crowning glory, the civil engineering marvels that span the nation.
American's involvement in Afghanistan, if it had been a whole-hearted war against the forces of terrorism, would have been positive for India. But given that it merely enriched the Pakistanis while retaining intact the entire infrastructure -- both the ISI and the radicalised army -- the Afghan war has not really helped India.
Indeed, the Northern Alliance -- assuming that its tactical genius Ahmed Shah Massoud had not been assassinated -- may well have driven the Taliban out or at least fought them to a standstill. In hindsight, the American intercession in Afghanistan has been a net negative for India.
As things stand, it now appears that it is better from India's perspective for the Americans to leave. As usual, India is left to fight its own battles. Unfortunately, the two parties that will benefit the most from the American debacle in Afghanistan are India's sworn enemies: China and Pakistan.
China, because the loss is likely to turn America inward, and in any case they have now been convinced by Chinese bluster that there has to be a G-2. Pakistan, of course, is richer by some $25 billion some of which is in numbered accounts somewhere, and the rest in nuclear and other weapons pointed at India.
For China, the Vietnam analogy is apt again. There, a Chinese proxy defeated the Americans; in Afghanistan, another Chinese proxy, Pakistan, may defeat America. In Korea, China fought America to a standstill. Score: China -- 2.5, America -- 0.5. No doubt this, along with Obama's kowtowing in Beijing, will embolden further Chinese adventurism.
India is already seeing the beginning of this, as Chinese are building 27 airstrips in occupied Tibet, and just ordered Indians to stop building a road in J&K, explaining that it was their territory.
Obama should learn from India's experience: A vacillating, dithering and appeasing nation gets no respect from those who have a a clear long-term intent.