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Obama looks afresh at Afghanistan

Obama looks afresh at Afghanistan

Author: G. Parthasarathy
Publication: The Hindu Business Line
Date: February 5, 2009
URL: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/2009/02/05/stories/2009020550130800.htm

With Pakistan beginning to feel the heat of the Obama administration's focus on Afghanistan, India has to prepare itself for growing volatility on its western land and maritime borders

Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on New York and Washington forced an American-led coalition to militarily oust the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan has provided shelter to Taliban political leaders in Baluchistan and allowed the Taliban military leadership and cadres to regroup and rearm in the Tribal Areas of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). The duplicity of Gen Musharraf and his army buddies has only led to the Pakistan-Afghanistan region becoming the epi centre of global terrorism. The entire NWFP is now under Pashtun Taliban control, with the Pakistan army unwilling and unable to assert the writ of the Pakistan state in this troubled region.

For almost six years the Americans tended to overlook Pakistani duplicity. But by 2008, American casualties in Afghanistan reached such high levels that a new strategy of carrot and stick became imperative, to deal with Pakistan.

President Bush authorised raids by unmanned CIA "drones" on terrorist targets within Pakistan, but appeared to lack a comprehensive strategy to deal with a resurgent Taliban operating from across the border in Pakistan.

Not so the new Obama Administration, which has quickly recognised that the greatest threat to international security arises from the entire Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. The contours of this new strategy are emerging. US forces in Afghanistan are going to be doubled. Under the Command of General Bismillah Khan, the strength of the Afghan National Army is going to be raised to around 136,000 personnel and its soldiers are going to be better equipped.

Within Afghanistan, issues of domestic governance are going to receive enhanced attention, with a far greater focus on making international aid more effective.

This could well mean that President Karzai would face strong opposition during the Presidential elections scheduled for September 2009 from leaders like Provincial Governor Gul Aha Sherzai. The Americans are preparing for a long stay in Afghanistan - something the Generals in Islamabad had believed would not happen.
Feeling the heat

Pakistan has already started feeling the heat. President Obama has averred that while he is prepared to triple economic assistance, such assistance would be directly linked to Pakistani co-operation in dealing with the Taliban. Moreover, the Americans will not hesitate to strike at "high-value" terrorist targets within Pakistan should they get "actionable intelligence".

Recognising that civilian leaders such as President Zardari have no control over ISI support for the Taliban and other Jihadi groups, high-level visiting dignitaries from the US and its NATO allies now meet Gen Kiyani and Gen Tariq Majid, rather than waste time meeting Defence Minister, Ahmed Mukhtar.

Whether this strategy will succeed in enhancing civilian authority in Pakistan is questionable, but is a recognition of the reality that within Pakistan the army is a "state within a state".

Diplomatically, the Obama Administration is evolving a new regional strategy in dealing with developments in Pakistan. A crucial reason for this change is that American military supplies moving through Pakistan are being subjected increasingly to attacks, or theft.

There are suspicions that that the Pakistan army establishment deliberately colludes in these attacks. Plans are underway to route supplies to Afghanistan through Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Russia angle

Following discussions with NATO members, Russia's Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, recently stated: "In the event of NATO's defeat in Afghanistan, fundamentalists who are inspired by the victory will set their eyes towards the North". Rogozin indicated that Taliban-backed fundamentalists would inevitably endeavour to destabilise Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan - countries whose stability is crucial for the Russians.

While Russia has indicated its readiness to permit its territory to be used for transit of American and NATO non-military supplies to Afghanistan, there are indications that it would be prepared to consider wider cooperation, if the Americans are forthcoming in addressing its concerns on issues like missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic.

It does appear that Obama would be prepared to address these concerns. India has to encourage moves in this direction and also persuade the US and its NATO allies that Iranian participation is essential in any effort to bring stability to Afghanistan.
Radical elements

These developments will have far-reaching implications for Pakistan itself. The Taliban already control the entire Northwest Frontier Province where, for many years, the Pakistan army has backed radical Islamic elements, to counter Pashtun nationalism. This should be evident from the fact that Taliban Commanders like Jalaluddin Haqqani continue to operate from Pakistani soil.

Significantly, the ISI chief, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, has labelled Taliban militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who has been accused of involvement in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban cleric who now controls the entire Swat district, as "true patriots".

He even justified the ideological leanings of the Taliban. In virtually the entire NWFP, women can no longer go shopping and girls are prohibited from going to school.

In the Swat District, 8,000 women teachers have been rendered unemployed and 80,000 girls prevented from going to school.

Opponents of Sharia rule have been hanged within a hundred yards of army posts and an entire army division sits by idly near an Army Corps Headquarters, as the Taliban surround the capital, Peshawar.

In these circumstances, can the Americans realistically persuade the Pakistan army to forget its Taliban buddies and take them on? This appears highly unlikely. The Durand Line, the disputed border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has not been recognised by any Government in Afghanistan, has ceased to exist.

For the Pakistan army to, therefore, claim that by attacking across the border the Americans are violating their territorial integrity, defies logic, as the Taliban have a free run across the Durand Line, which for all practical purposes has ceased to exist for Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Can any attempt to stabilise the tribal areas within Pakistan succeed without the international community addressing the needs of the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, in an integrated manner, recognising that the Durand Line is no longer an effective international border?

These are issues that President Obama's Special Representative Richard Holbrooke needs to carefully consider, as the US prepares for a long stay and struggle in Afghanistan.

India also has to prepare itself for growing volatility on its western land and maritime borders. Over seven years ago the US National Intelligence Council predicted: "Pakistan will become more fractious, isolated and dependent on international financial institutions. In a climate of continuing domestic turmoil, the Central Government's control will probably be reduced to the Punjabi heartland and the economic hub of Karachi".

With the entire Pakistan-Afghanistan border destabilised, would it not be become imperative for Pakistan to shift its nuclear weapons into its "Punjabi heartland"?

Recent developments along Pakistan's western borders thus make it imperative for India and the international community to ponder on how to deal with this emerging scenario.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

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