Obama has an Afghan game planby MK Bhadrakumar
THE surprise visit by United States President Barack Obama to Kabul on Tuesday just ahead of the formal launch of his re-election bid in the November presidential elections is a politically symbolic act. He has estimated that his visit to Kabul will resonate in the American opinion. There is no triumphalism in his demeanour, but the resolve to stay put in Afghanistan for at least another decade is difficult to overlook.
This resolve also has the stamp of an obligation that he needs to see through his second term in office as president if he gets re-elected. Obama is determined to fulfil his obligation. With the 10-year strategic partnership agreement neatly wrapped up and a good beginning made to reset ties with Pakistan — following his breaking the ice, so to speak, with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani on the sidelines of the Nuclear Summit in Seoul — Obama estimates that things can only get better on the political and diplomatic front and for him, the military front is not what counts anyway.
The fact remains that apart from an occasional whimper in Moscow, there has been no resistance to the US-Afghan strategic pact in the region as a whole. One important regional power, India, is in fact an ardent votary of it. (The Afghan foreign minister just visited New Delhi.) But the clincher is that contrary to the general impression (which is more a wishful thinking by detractors), the US-Pakistan relationship is on the mend. To appreciate that, one needs to look back at the crucial discussions last week between the US and Pakistani sides.
The long-awaited resumption of high-level talks in Islamabad to break the deadlock in the relations between the United States and Pakistan ended in an air of strategic ambiguity. Most observers have rushed to judgement that the talks ended in failure.
Prima facie, the talks indeed seemed to end inconclusively. After all, transit routes to Afghanistan via Pakistan still haven’t been reopened. And drone attacks on the North Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan also continue. The curious twist to the tale is that last week’s talks broke down because the US resiled from an assurance given to the Pakistani side that it would render an apology for the American strikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border.
But why wouldn’t Obama sanction an apology? It seems it doesn’t look good in a crucial election year for Obama to be seen apologising at the rate at which he is doing — whenever the US soldiers burn Korans or urinate on Afghan corpses or simply go berserk killing civilians.
On the other hand, what is there in an apology? The stakes are very high for Obama to settle with Pakistan. A summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation will be held in Chicago shortly and Obama has to show something by way of light at the end of the tunnel in the Afghan war. The US’s European allies are getting increasingly restive and Washington needs to raise the money (estimated at $4 billion annually) to fund the Afghan army in the post-2014 scenario.
Above all, the US and NATO urgently seek the reopening of the transit routes through Pakistan to support troops currently in Afghanistan and also to help withdraw tens of thousands of weapons and materiel out as a major drawdown approaches in 2014.
To be sure, the backdrop is not of a kind that Obama would quibble over an apology and deliberately slow down the negotiation with Pakistan. That is, unless he has a game plan. And his surprise visit to Kabul Tuesday is a most telling evidence that he does have a game plan.
According to the US State Department spokesperson, ‘This [US-Pakistan talks] is the beginning of the re-engagement conversation. We’re going to have to work through these issues, and it's going to take some time.’ The so-called ‘issues’ are mainly four:
l Pakistan’s demand that US should stop the drone attacks and render an apology for the November air-strike.
l Transit routes via Pakistan.
l Military aid payments.
l The Taliban peace process.
What emerges is that the US is working according to a plan. When the US special envoy Marc Grossman visited Pakistan last week, Washington had already initialled the US-Afghan ‘strategic partnership agreement’ and prior to that, two memorandums of understanding regarding the transfer of prisoners to Afghan custody and the ending of night raids by the US forces.
With the formal signing of the strategic partnership agreement at Chicago, the summit will endorse the strategy for the transition, following which the US will move on to the next stage of negotiations with Kabul over a ‘status of forces agreement’ concerning the long-term US military presence in Afghanistan.
If there has been any doubt about the American tenacity to stay on in Afghanistan, that has been dispelled by Obama’s visit to Kabul and his public commitment that the US won’t abandon Afghanistan. This is a commitment that he is obliged to carry through if he gets re-elected as president.
It is increasingly apparent that the US will maintain a sizeable military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, including combat troops and contingents of the US special operations forces.
Such a military presence requires back-up by American medical evacuation personnel and helicopters, and also some US war planes, especially aerial gun ships and air-to-ground assault planes. These combat troops cannot operate in a vacuum and, therefore, a fleet of intelligence-gathering and surveillance aircraft and their crews will also have to remain. In sum, a substantial US military presence will continue. The spin is that the US is determined not to ‘abandon’ Afghanistan, as it did in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal.
However, the sequencing of the negotiations with Kabul and Islamabad (and the Taliban) becomes important. The US would want the ‘status of forces agreement’ to be negotiated exclusively with Karzai, sequestering it from the peace process with the Taliban or the normalisation of the US-Pakistan ties.
So, what we may expect is that on a parallel track the US will make haste slowly on the peace talks with the Taliban even as the ‘status of forces agreement’ is worked out. Washington has learnt a bitter lesson from the Iraq experience, where the American occupation was terminated by end-2011 despite desperate US attempts to scuttle that. The US is not taking any chances in Afghanistan.
THE centrepiece of the US strategy is the establishment of US military bases in Afghanistan and everything else is built around it — or integrated into it at various stages between now and end-2014.
What we may expect, therefore, is that despite the recent massive attacks by the Taliban in Kabul, peace negotiations will continue. The general impression is that the Taliban devised a plan through these attacks to win more attention, which could be leveraged in its talks with the US.
But the Taliban attacks may have instead helped prepare the ground in Afghan opinion for the continued military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Indeed, there has been no commotion within Pakistan over the initialling of the ‘strategic partnership agreement’ (or among regional powers), which is leading to the establishment of US military bases. Karzai made things double sure in a timely move that panders to the Tajik sensitivities by also announcing that the late Burhanuddin Rabbani’s son — Salahuddin — would be the new head of the Afghan High Peace Council.
The missing link is where Pakistan stands in the US's scheme of things. The short and clear-cut answer is that Pakistan still remains the kingpin in the entire US strategy — despite all the unpleasantness that manifested through the past year. Which is also why Washington is still withholding the promised aid to the Pakistani military estimated to be anywhere between $1.18 and $3 billion. Pakistan needs the aid and China cannot substitute for the US. (Nor is there any shred of evidence that Beijing is interested in a zero-sum game with the US.)
Without doubt, Grossman netted two important gains in Islamabad. First, a ‘core group’ has been set up to help arrange a safe passage for the Taliban who would travel for peace talks held in Afghanistan, Pakistan or third countries.
More important, Pakistan has accepted Obama's invitation to attend the NATO summit in Chicago. It can be said with one hundred per cent certainty that Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani will be attending. The public pledge by the Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kiani on Monday that the military will remain confined to its ‘constitutional’ role also carries an important signal to Washington.
Meanwhile, Washington has also resuscitated the New Silk Road project, which is an important dimension to the post-2014 scenario and whose realisation is almost entirely predicated on Pakistan’s cooperation.
Evidently, Washington is taking Pakistan’s cooperation as a done thing. Geoffrey Pyatt, US principal assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of South and Central Asia, who was speaking in Almaty during a regional tour of Central Asia on April 20, said, ‘As proof of that [New Silk Road] concept, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan have just formalised their own Cross-Border Transport Agreement.’
Pyatt listed a number of activities that are giving traction to the New Silk Road project: Afghan-Pakistan trade and transit agreement, easing of restrictions on India-Pakistan trade and commercial ties; Uzbek and Turkmen supply of electricity to Afghanistan; new rail connections being built between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan; a new rail line from the Uzbek border to Mazar-i-Sharif; progress in the negotiations over a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project; India's iron ore project in Hajigak in Afghanistan; bids by American companies in the upcoming six mining tenders in Afghanistan (three in copper, two in gold and one in lithium); creation of the Border Management Staff College in Dushanbe and the Customs Training Facility in Bishkek, and so on.
Pyatt linked the New Silk Road to the Afghan settlement. ‘Along the New Silk Road, all of Afghanistan's neighbors ... stand to benefit from an end to the insurgency and a broad-based political solution.’
Suffice to say, Obama’s meeting with Gilani in Chicago, which will be their second meeting in three months, underscores the high importance the US attaches to getting Pakistan on board the New Silk Road project.
No matter the spin given to Grossman's talks in Islamabad last week, Washington is steadily working toward the smoothening of the relationship with Pakistan so that with Islamabad's cooperation, peace talks with the Taliban can resume while on a parallel track the US-Afghan status of forces agreement is concluded. All these processes are expected to converge by end-2014 and provide the underpinning for the New Silk Road project.
The building blocks of the New Silk Road project for embedding Afghanistan in the Central Asian region are already visible at the recently concluded Regional Economic Cooperation in Afghanistan (RECCA-V) in Dushanbe, which agreed on a broad-based series of regulatory reforms, cross-border economic initiatives, improved customs measures, and inter-regional transit agreements designed to promote regional economic integration in Central Asia under US leadership.
Again, the Organisation of Security Cooperation Ministerial Conference of the Central Asia Border Security Initiative held at Vienna on April 17 (which was attended by Pyatt) has backed the efforts at RECCA. The US made it clear at the Vienna conference that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will have a key role in Afghanistan and Central Asia to accelerate the New Silk Road project aiming at the strengthening of economic integration between South and Central Asia with Afghanistan as its centre.
Asia Times Online, May 2. Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.
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