Inevitably the single-most important facet of the United States foreign policy today for everyday Indians is its outlook on Afghanistan-Pakistan. New Delhi has rightly been concerned that the Barack Obama administration’s first year was one of mixed signals when it came to the direction of its ‘Af-Pak’ policy. Washington seemed to be as much at war against Afghan President Hamid Karzai as it was against Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Sections of the Beltway spoke about negotiating with the ‘moderate Taliban’. Mr Obama’s officials dreamt of a grand bargain with Pakistan which consisted almost solely of concessions by India and Afghanistan. But all this was secondary to a clear message by President Obama that he was prepared to commit military forces in large enough numbers and for as long as it was needed to hold the line in Afghanistan. If the US was not prepared to expend blood and treasure to defend Afghanistan, then victory for the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan was assured.
President Obama’s Tuesday speech has at last made the sort of commitment so far lacking in his Afghanistan policy. By giving orders that 30,000 more US soldiers will be deployed in Afghanistan — bringing the strength of US forces to some 100,000 — the US president will have checked those who had come to assume Mr Obama did not have the stomach to be a war leader. By stressing that fighting in Afghanistan was ultimately about defeating al-Qaeda, Mr Obama also rejected Taliban and Pakistani contentions that allowing the militants back into Kabul would not also mean a return for Osama bin Laden. However, Mr Obama has partly undermined his message by promising that US troops would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan within 18 months. Given it may take six months for all 30,000 troops to be deployed, the impression is that the US expects to drive the Taliban from their mountain haunts in just a year’s time. Mr Obama’s timeline is relatively open-ended, but this sop to the left-wing of his party ensures that the Taliban will continue to believe they need only wait. The only thing likely to change this mindset will be bullets and bodies. Mr Obama may talk of a civilian surge and regional cooperation, but he has helped further ensure Afghanistan’s future will be decided by fighting.