The Narendra Modi government will have to put some distance between itself and Washington while it charts out its own course for Kabul, as a new president takes charge there this summer and that’s likely to be former Afghan foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah
Keeping information flowing has been the Obama administration’s hallmark, even if much of that is detritus. For instance, how else would journalists know that Obama can be the poet-in-chief, as a recent email about his remarks at a White House Science Fair reveals: “We’ve got Bill Nye, the Science Guy. You can see his bow-tie.” That’s very nice. But sometimes if the channels of communication get flooded, call it poetic justice. As with the recent email, part of a White House pool report during Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan, which said “here is the manifest of those in POTUS military briefing, now underway”, listed 16 names, and in that process, identified America’s chief of station or CIA head in Afghanistan to journalists worldwide. Or perhaps that’s just how this administration runs its foreign policy, with rhyme perhaps, though not much reason.
In a speech in the summer of 2011, Obama announced the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan. The drawback was that this gave a clear roadmap to terrorists to wait until the Americans departed. This week, he might as well have warbled, a la Britney Spears, “Oops, I did it again,” while unveiling a schedule for American troops to leave entirely by late 2016, except for some left behind to protect US missions. Meanwhile, al Qaeda, despite earlier claims of its decimation, seems only to have “decentralised”.
For a government supposedly steeped in openness, the play here is fairly transparent, and will provide much glee to whoever is the Democratic nominee for the next American presidential election, coincidentally scheduled for November 2016.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai must be unimpressed with the American ploy since he snubbed Obama who sought a meeting with him in Bagram. Officially, Karzai pointed out to Obama that his palace happened to be in Kabul, about 60 km from Bagram. The two later chatted on the phone and among the issues discussed were the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat and Karzai’s attendance at the new PM’s “inauguration”, as a White House spokesperson put it.
As America prepares to exit the stage, the opportunity will arise for India to play a larger role in Afghanistan, working with the next President of that country, who will take office in August. Obama may be working the phones to the new government in New Delhi to ring in a new ear, but when he first took the call on instituting an Af-Pak policy, India had been placed on hold. Basically, Pakistan’s deep State, with its deep state of suspicion about India, with the assent of Washington, led to dialing back India’s proposed presence there.
Over the years, though, India has emerged as the largest non-Western investor in Afghanistan. And perhaps, the time will arrive when it can decide, without American interference, about literally safeguarding its interests in that country, with troops of some sort, outside of embassy and consulate premises, to which its paramilitary contingents have been confined.
Obama has proved he’s more effective as a campaigner than in governance, which has been bloated and blundering. His global strategy has laid bigger eggs than a pride of ostriches. In that sense, his roadmap for the Af-Pak region has been somewhat like Google’s new automobile prototype — driverless, without a steering wheel or pedals to smoothly accelerate or apply the brakes. And while it may rely on technology, be great at going in reverse gear or cruising on friendly roads, it has run flat when faced with the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan.
The Narendra Modi government in New Delhi will have to put some distance between itself and Washington while it charts out its own course for Kabul, as a new president takes charge there this summer and that’s likely to be former Afghan foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. The sturdy old model, like the ambassador, will require junking and a new vehicle deployed. And it’ll need a purposeful driver.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
He is the author of The Candidate
The views expressed by the author are personal