U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next year didn’t draw the cheers he might have expected for fulfilling his pledge; instead, it brought more doubts on the pace, risks and consequences.
The quiet in Islamabad tells its own story and New Delhi must now brace itself to secure its footprint for the next round of the not-so-great game. Even though the announcement of the drawdown was anticipated, its clear, precise articulation byPresident Obama still shocked regional players into silence – Pakistan because its military has lost its bluster lately and India because it fears the aftermath in the wake of American departure.
The White House decision is largely driven by the timetable of presidential elections – the surge troops Obama ordered into battle against some opposition would be back by September 2012 – a month before the November vote. The rest of the 70,000 troops will return by 2014. An end game or at least the beginnings of one in Afghanistan is a prerequisite for Obama to win a second term. Another is an economy showing more signs of life. The two are intertwined given the huge cost of the Afghan war at $118.6 billion. It is no longer seen as the “war of necessity” by the president whose poll numbers on handling the domestic economy have plummeted.
The 10-year war has taken its toll on the American public, and their impatience has steadily grown. The killing of Osama bin Laden helped crystallize the national mood – largely framed by Obama’s own Democratic Party – that it is time to start bringing the troops home. France, Germany, Poland and Spain are set to follow in America’s footsteps.
Obama’s decision may constitute good domestic politics – but does it make good policy? The speed of the withdrawal poses new challenges for all the regional players in Afghanistan, from New Delhi to Islamabad, from Central Asian republics to China, from Iran to Russia, as the US security umbrella begins to fold. Many in the United States, including the Pentagon and many Republicans, have expressed doubts about Obama’s decision to bring back the troops , which may lead to reversal of gains made against the extremists. The Afghan government has welcomed the announcement.
A day after the announcement, on June 23, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of US military’s joint chiefs of staff, testified on Capitol Hill and laid bare the Pentagon’s misgivings about the fast pace of the drawdown. “The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” said Mullen. But he added that the risks were manageable. He was articulating the strong resistance within the Pentagon against the idea of a drawdown.
The opinion of the outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates that reduction in troop levels should be modest is well known. But Gates was unable to convince Obama to buy time for two more fighting seasons to ensure the Taliban is weakened enough for a good compromise. The troop surge, just over a year old, was showing signs of success and to remove the advantage in mid-stream can only give solace to the jihadist forces, according to the Pentagon.
The Republicans are split while the Democrats, led by Vice President Joseph Biden, are largely in favour of a withdrawal. It appears that Obama found a half-way solution to win over some from both sides. But many others are unhappy about not ensuring a clear victory. Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican, called the president’s time-table “dangerous.”
The writ of the Afghan government does not run either deep or wide for effective governance. Although Obama argued that Afghan forces would be able to contain the militancy, at the same time he berated President Hamid Karzai for not doing enough. The Taliban have suffered setbacks in their southern heartland but have been resurgent along the Afghan-Pakistan border, an area that US military commanders wanted to target.
But political Washington wants a political solution and the Pentagon generals have been thwarted in their battle plans. The White House no longer wants to “defeat” the Taliban but wants to “shape the choices” and protect the Afghan government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that efforts to make a “very preliminary outreach” to the Taliban had been made but acknowledged it was “not a pleasant business.” Making peace with any variety of Taliban – “good” or “bad” — requires holding your nose.
But basic questions about who would take over control from US troops are unanswered because of the muddy political landscape in Kabul. An Afghan special court last week overturned results in 62 of the 249 constituencies from last year’s parliamentary elections, opening deep splits between Karzai and those opposed to him. The stand-off is likely to continue for some time to come.
The State Department has floated the idea to make Afghanistan into a neutral zone like Belgium was by the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. Clinton told a Senate hearing last week that the “Congress of Vienna is an interesting historical example because there was a pact made among regional powers that in effect left the Benelux countries as a free zone.” Referring to India and Pakistan and their conflicting views on Afghanistan, she said, “If we could get to that point with the regional powers in South Asia, that they would not recommence with the great game in Afghanistan, that would be a very worthy outcome.” It may be an idea worth exploring and she is expected to discuss it with Indian officials in the next round of the Indo-US Strategic Dialogue in New Delhi this month. The Pakistani establishment will have to overcome or at least set aside its obsession with “Enemy India” to cooperate in Afghanistan. The current confusion in Islamabad and the low ebb in US-Pakistan relations does not bode well for a tripartite understanding.
Clinton may have a bigger task in convincing the Pakistani military establishment to leave Afghanistan alone than she does India. New Delhi has focused on rebuilding Afghanistan, committing $1.2 billion while maintaining links with various ethnic groups, building a positive image among locals who see tangible gains in the shape of schools and hospitals. It does not want a replay of the 1990s and will defend its interests better this time around without getting too entangled. But it may have to move beyond the premise that no Taliban is a good Taliban. India must open lines of communication, especially with key Pashtun groups, beyond its comfort zone to be a real player.
The Pakistani generals, sobered and chastened of late, may rethink the old, tired “strategic depth” theory, and use of terror networks as policy tools. For one, the US withdrawal does not mean the end of drone attacks or the use of Afghanistan as a base for a limited strike capability and counter-insurgency forces. Open talk of striking deep inside Pakistan to reach terrorist leaders is common in Washington. Therefore the options for Islamabad are more limited than in the 1990s when Pakistani forces and air power helped Taliban establish itself. Adventurism in today’s environment is more likely to be punished. The best case scenario might be an understanding with both Washington and New Delhi on a mutually acceptable dispensation in Afghanistan that is Afghan-led and Afghan
The Americans would like nothing better than for India and Pakistan to cooperate in Afghanistan, a “beautiful idea” whose time may have come. China, Pakistan’s protector-in-chief, may even encourage Islamabad towards a saner policy of letting Afghanistan be. Beijing has shown it doesn’t want to stand beside Pakistan in its anti-American crusade. The more important question is whether the intense gaze of the Pakistani people on their military will force the much needed shifting of gears or more crouching in the corner.
As the Americans leave, the fault lines will become clearer and strategies more discernable. And South Asia will undergo another makeover after an initial phase of confusion.
Seema Sirohi is an international journalist and analyst, and a regular contributor to Gateway House.
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