Strategic clarity needed on Afghanistan

The continued ambivalence over the establishment of the American military bases in Afghanistan suggests that strategic clarity is still lacking. Source: AP

The continued ambivalence over the establishment of the American military bases in Afghanistan suggests that strategic clarity is still lacking. Source: AP

There is nothing like absolute security in today’s world and the US’ rebalance has already introduced high volatility in the Asia-Pacific and destabilized that region.

The former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani has disclosed President Barack Obama once made an offer of American help to bring India to settle the Kashmir problem if only Islamabad cooperated with his AfPak strategy. But Pakistan rejected the overture. The year was 2009.

Nonetheless, successive US special representatives on AfPak have continued to remain rooted in the belief that unless the Kashmir problem is resolved and India-Pakistan ties improved, stabilization of Afghanistan will remain elusive. Curiously, the idea was originally mooted in October 2001 by the then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf to George W. Bush administration as a “pre-condition” of his support for the war on terror. But Bush instead proceeded to invade Iraq in 2003 and, even more galling for Pakistan, seized the window of opportunity presented by the appointment of Manmohan Singh as India’s prime minister to enter into a 10-year defence cooperation agreement with Delhi and begin discussions that culminated in the nuclear deal in 2008.

In sum, Pakistan spurned Obama’s 2009 offer against a combinations of circumstances adversely affecting its core interests. Five years later, the big question is how would Pakistan respond if Obama were to repeat the offer?

As a matter of fact, he just did. The US-Pakistan joint statement issued after Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s talks with Obama in Washington last month made thinly veiled references to the imperatives of Kashmir settlement, while underscoring the need of “strategic balance” and “strategic stability” in South Asia. It hinted at a US-Pakistan nuclear deal and promised long-term US military assistance for Pakistan.

Suffice to say, Obama has improved upon his 2009 offer, but then, his timeline today is short and Pakistan has brilliantly succeeded in regaining lost ground by advancing its “strategic assets” on the Afghan chessboard. Obama’s agenda is, one, wind up the war, but ensure that NATO’s credibility isn’t impaired; and, two, establish military bases in Afghanistan but with US troops not involved in combat missions. Obama is a realist and he understands the criticality of an enduring US-Pakistan partnership. He keeps no “holy cows” in his stable and is unsentimental when it comes to the robust pursuit of US’ self-interests. It isn’t that Obama is indifferent toward Riyadh, Tel Aviv or Delhi, but it simply happens to be the case that his priority is to engage Tehran and Islamabad.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s core expectations out of any coalition government in Kabul (which includes the Taliban) are two-fold: exorcise India’s influence in Afghanistan and ensure security along the Durand Line and there is no clash of interests here between Washington and Islamabad.

A sense of frustration is apparent in India. The pundits are self-righteously fulminating against Pakistan’s political economy. But, honestly, did Pakistan have a choice or, put differently, did India offer a road that was not taken? Frankly, what is the net gain out of the $1.5 billion spent on Afghanistan since 2002 – or the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted in the late 1990s to support the “anti-Taliban” resistance? The really important thing is to be introspective.

India’s Afghan policies suffered severe “collateral damage” from the US-India nuclear deal. The period 2005-2008 was the time the Taliban staged the comeback but India felt obliged to “harmonise” with the US’ regional policies. Ironically, it is entirely conceivable today that Pakistan too may have a nuclear deal, which means the exclusivity of our 2008 deal was a mere figment of our imagination.

How India chooses to exercise this newfound existential freedom is the question. It’s possible to view the paradigm through the Indian prism. But the continued ambivalence over the establishment of the American military bases in Afghanistan suggests that strategic clarity is still lacking. There is nothing like absolute security in today’s world and the US’ rebalance has already introduced high volatility in the Asia-Pacific and destabilized that region. This can as well repeat in Central Asia of which Afghanistan becomes a crucial geopolitical template. India should reach out to regional powers that are stakeholders in regional stability. 

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