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A change in the goalposts

Karzai’s rehabilitation is the latest sign that Pakistan is finding less traction with the US.

india Updated: May 14, 2010 22:17 IST

Geopolitics rather than politeness lay behind President Barack Obama’s insistence that the red carpet be rolled out for Hamid Karzai’s latest State visit to the US. The Obama administration has been witheringly critical of the Afghan president over the past several months. But the embrace of Mr Karzai is only one of several pointers that the White House has begun to change the woof and warp of its Afghan policy and produce a pattern that carries the imprint of Pakistan more lightly. Pakistan made one basic assumption: the US would withdraw from Afghanistan within a few years. On the basis of that, Pakistan proffered a deal to the US. If the US allowed Pakistan’s proxies to be primus inter pares in Kabul, the latter would ensure there would be no terrorist strikes against the US from Afghanistan. Part of this deal would include striking India out of the Afghanistan equation.

However, the US’s scepticism that Pakistan can deliver on its end of the bargain has been rising steadily. The most damaging evidence has been Islamabad’s inability to control Islamicist militant groups on its own soil, even those spawned by the Pakistani military. The recent Times Square bombing attempt only underlined the increasing gap between the claims of the Pakistani system and the reality of the ‘Af-Pak’ ferment. So the US has begun to tack in a different direction, one that accepts that its military presence in Afghanistan won’t end soon, that an independent Kabul regime is part of the final answer. Ultimately, the real threat to the region lies in the need to break up the Pakistani establishment’s terrorist hang-up. Mr Obama has accepted that Mr Karzai, for all his faults, represents his best option against the Taliban. The US is pressuring Pakistan to attack those Taliban seen to be close to Rawalpindi. Mr Obama has supported India’s presence in Afghanistan. And there was a military threat implicit in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning of “consequences” if Pakistan-based terrorism succeeded in attacking the US.

The rehabilitation of Mr Karzai is the most obvious signal of Mr Obama’s change of heart. But more is needed. The past several months of vitriol have led the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters to believe that capturing Kabul is just an exercise in patience. The US strategy’s first goal is to bury the perception that its Af-Pak goal is of an exit rather than of completion.