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Fobbing off the burden

Barack Obama’s myopic Afpak plan, with its narrow goals, is bad news for India, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2009 08:01 IST

Throwing more money at Pakistan, without clarity of goals, and keeping up the pretence that al Qaeda poses the main threat makes Barack Obama look more like George W. Bush than a US president heralding change. Obama has failed to appreciate that the ‘Afpak’ problem won’t go away without a fundamental break from US policies that helped create this terrifying muddle.

Worse still, Obama wants to regionally contain rather than defeat terrorism, as if the monster of terrorism can be deftly confined to the Afpak belt — a blinkered approach that promises to bring Indian security under added pressure. His aides contend that by refocusing US power to contain and deter, America can diplomatically encircle the terrorist threats from Pakistan and the Taliban. Distant America may be able to afford this, but next-door India will bear the consequences.

In unveiling an Afpak plan founded on narrow goals, Obama has fallen prey to a long-standing US policy weakness: the pursuit of near-term objectives without much regard for the security of regional friends. To focus entirely on one’s own security, and to give primacy to what is politically expedient, is to repeat the very mistakes of past US policy that inadvertently gave rise to the scourge of jihadist transnational terror.

Let’s be clear: Pakistan and Afghanistan, two artificially created states with no roots in history, constitute the most dangerous region on earth. Additionally, Pakistan is where state-nurtured terrorism and state-reared nuclear smuggling uniquely intersect. Yet Obama’s central objective is not to clean up the mess but to extricate the US from the war in Afghanistan by winning over the bulk of the Taliban, including by pandering to Pakistan, the terrorist procreator and sanctuary provider.

Obama has abandoned the international goal of institution-building in Afghanistan, disparagingly equating it with nation-building. In place of creating a unified, stable, democratic Afghanistan, Obama has defined a short-term mission: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. But given that al-Qaeda already is badly splintered and weakened and in no position to openly challenge US interests, Obama can declare ‘mission accomplished’ any time he wants. As the latest Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community presented to a Senate committee on February 12 admits, “Because of the pressure we and our allies have put on al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan… al-Qaeda today is less capable and effective than it was a year ago”.

Obama’s lowering of the bar is to facilitate an end to US combat operations in Afghanistan much before he comes up for re-election. And his playing up the threat from al Qaeda — whose remnants are holed up in mountain caves — helps create room to negotiate a political deal with the more-formidable Taliban.

In what passes for grand strategy, Obama’s plan, in theory, clubs Pakistan (with its militant safe havens) and Afghanistan in a single theatre of operation. But in practice, it follows opposite tracks: showering billions of dollars in additional aid on Pakistan and promising not to deploy troops there, while stepping up military operations in Afghanistan to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. It is good though that he wants to build up the size and strength of the Afghan national army — the only institution he’s named. But that is to facilitate a US military exit.

To make his plan more presentable, Obama proclaimed “benchmarks and metrics to measure our performance and that of our allies” — Islamabad and Kabul. Yet he shied away from defining the benchmarks or explaining how the stepped-up aid flow to Islamabad will be calibrated to meeting them. As he acknowledged, the benchmarks are yet to be developed by his team, in concert with Congress.

The blunt truth is that by unveiling new rewards for Pakistan upfront, in the form of a quantum jump in aid — even as Washington admits that Islamabad has misused past aid — Obama has undercut his benchmark-setting endeavour. Thus, the talk of new “benchmarks and metrics” is just public relations to market what otherwise would have been a difficult decision to justify — the tripling of non-military aid to renegade Pakistan while maintaining the existing munificent level of military assistance.

The way to bring a near-bankrupt Pakistan to heel is to threaten suspension of all bilateral and multilateral aid flow — a threat that will have a lightning effect. Yet, Obama first unveils new goodies and then expects Pakistani intelligence to stop underwriting the Taliban. (He’s still to name Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and other Pakistan-based terror groups that serve as proxies against India.) At a time when Pakistan is most vulnerable to international pressure, including a threat to place it on the US list of State sponsors of terror, Obama is reluctant to exercise leverage, proposing instead the largest-ever annual US aid flow to that country. Before long, more lethal, directed-at-India US weapons also will flow to Islamabad — “like whisky to an alcoholic”, to quote the Indian foreign secretary.

America and India must embed counterterrorism cooperation in an institutional framework so that their collaboration over the Pakistan-scripted Mumbai terror strikes does not prove to be a one-shot affair. But can such an institutional process be built if America both disregards the interests of India — already bearing the brunt of the blowback from failed US policies in the past — and continues to heap rewards on Pakistan without so much as helping to bring the Mumbai-attack planners to justice? Kashmir’s exclusion from Obama’s plan was inevitable, given that Washington’s priority is to reduce its load, not to add more. But having devised his hallucinatory loop of delusion without detailed consultations with India, Obama now wants to co-opt New Delhi in the plan’s implementation, especially by persuading it to emulate his kid-gloves treatment of Pakistan.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi