There is an assumption that President Barack Obama has begun beating the retreat from America’s longest overseas military conflict. Afghanistan, this argument goes, has once again proved itself the graveyard of empires. This point of view has more chance of being wrong than right. The nature of the US war in Afghanistan has metamorphosed since the original invasion that followed 9/11. The ebb and flow of US troops is a lot less important than it once was. Mr Obama’s withdrawal is far from a rout. Even by 2012 end, by which time he promises to withdraw 33,000 troops, the US will have double the military presence in Afghanistan it had when he entered office. And by then, of course, the US presidential elections will be over and this speech may well be forgotten. More important is that the US priority in the war has changed from merely defeating al-Qaeda. The jasmine revolutions and the death of Osama bin Laden have reduced the terror network to a Taliban plug-in. US officials say their military presence in Afghanistan is now crucial to a different theatre of the war on terror — Pakistan.
India has long argued the Pakistani military, its militant groups and the Taliban are branches of the same tree. The ene-my that the US, Afghanistan and India face is the same. That elements of this chimeric foe are also attacking Pakistan is relevant only in how little influence this is having on Rawalpindi’s willingness to end the use of terrorism as an element of its Statecraft. The real change has been in Washington. David Headley, bin Laden’s hidey-hole and what was unearthed in Abbottabad have made even the most blinkered Americans recognise that the root cause of Islamicist global terror is the sickness that afflicts the Pakistani state. Troop numbers are far less important to the future of the region than how Washington uses Afghanistan as a base to further its Pakistan policy. India was an invisible player in the first phase of the US war in Afghanistan but now needs to be far more proactive in what can be termed the second phase. The US wants to focus on changing the mindset of denial and delusion that increasingly afflicts the Pakistani system. Part of that policy will be carrots like aid, weapons and the like. India needs to work out how best it can influence, coordinate with or simply exploit any such US policy, especially given the limited levers it has regarding Pakistan.
The US is war-weary and its bank balance not in great shape. It will easily be afflicted by impatience or policy drift. Which is all the more reason that India should be giving thought to the ‘AfPak question’ in a way that goes beyond rewarming British Raj tomes or slipping into lethargy. Mr Obama’s speech reminds us that Americans can cut themselves loose and return to a home thousands of miles away. Indians face an opposite fate — turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan will spread first and foremost into their own homes and hearths.