The March 03, 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team by a dozen unidentified gunmen in Lahore brings home starkly the reality about an increasingly unstable Pakistan in particular and South Asia in general. To many of the bystanders and terrified Pakistani civilians in Lahore’s busy Liberty Square, it was India’s Mumbai attacks acted out once over again. The CCTV images of the gunmen in Lahore were chillingly similar to the 10 gunmen involved in the Mumbai attacks; the terrorists in Lahore like those in Mumbai, were casually dressed in jeans and jackets, carried haversacks, and calmly shot at their targets. What is most worrisome is the fact that in both cases, the militants executed "commando type" operations, in which they engaged the security forces in direct combat. Usually, terrorists are known to carry out spectacular acts of faceless violence through bomb blasts aimed at high civilian casualties and political impact.
Such frequent terror attacks, be they in Mumbai last year or Lahore now, force us in this part of the world to start questioning the overall effectiveness of the US "war on terror", whose central front under the Obama Administration has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border areas. The questions that beg answers are: What are the contours of Obama’s unfolding South Asia policy? Is the Administration on the right path? Does it take into account the specific sensitivities of the states in the region?
Interestingly, Obama’s South Asia policy team comprises of Richard Holbrooke, a long time US diplomat, famous for his role in the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 in the Balkans and Bruce Reidel, Senior Fellow in foreign policy at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, who also served with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for 29 years before retiring in 2006. Holbrooke has been tasked with the role of Obama’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan while Bruce Reidel is chairing a White House policy review team on Pakistan and Afghanistan. With such rich experiences in conflict zones like the Balkans and the Middle East, it appears that both Holbrooke and Reidel have "been there, done that" in a very personal sense of the term regarding conflict prone regions in general. However, their South Asian experience has not stretched beyond two to four years and has been mostly wrapped around intelligence gathering and analyses rather than a deep understanding of local cultures and ways of diplomacy.
Obama’s Unfolding South Asia Policy
Nevertheless, the Obama Administration’s unfolding South Asia policy focus is and will be on Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is neither surprising nor something new. During his Presidential election campaign and subsequently during his Presidential Inaugural Address on January 20, 2009 and "Address to the Joint Session of Congress" on February 24, 2009 President Obama identified Pakistan and Afghanistan as "the central front of the war against al Qaeda and the war against extremism."
The contours of the policy has been further buttressed by the release on February 24, 2009 of The Atlantic Council of the United States’ report titled Needed: A Comprehensive US Policy Towards Pakistan. Co-chaired by Senators Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, the Atlantic Council report’s recommendations include the following:
- The US should view Pakistan in a regional context especially its relations with India, Turkey, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and Europe;
- The US must play a key role in defusing India-Pakistan relations;
- The US, Pakistan and Afghan security forces must jointly fight terror outfits in the Afghan-Pakistan border;
- The US must strengthen Pakistani democracy and its institutions;
- The US military must train Pakistan’s military in counter-insurgency warfare to take up security responsibilities in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Swat valley;
- The Obama Administration must support early passage of the Kerry/Lugar legislations, which authorizes US $1.5 billion a year over the next five years in non-military aid to Pakistan and a further additional US $ 7.5 billion over the following five years to up-lift Pakistani society.
Besides these specific recommendations for Pakistan, Obama has also pledged an additional US $1 billion in non-military aid each year to Afghanistan in order to support education, basic infrastructure and human services and to counter the opium trade by supporting alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers. This is over and above US $ 10.2 billion pledged for security and reconstruction in Afghanistan for 2008-2009. Further, Obama has stated that the US combat troops of about 1,42,000 will withdraw from Iraq by August 31, 2010 save 35,000 to 50,000 US personnel who will train Iraqi security forces till 2011 end. These troops are however, not going home. They will be relocated to Afghanistan as the battleground for the "war on terror" in Obama’s view has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan. This year, the 36,000 US troop stationed in Afghanistan will be bolstered by an additional 17,000 troops further strengthened in 2010 by troops coming from Iraq.
The Issue Areas
Inferring from the above recommendations and statements, Obama’s South Asia policy can be located within three main policy props.
First, exit Iraq, entry Afghanistan-Pakistan. The 1, 640 miles long mountainous, remote and virtually inaccessible Afghan-Pakistan border is viewed by the US as the critical support base area for the Taliban and al Qaeda. It is widely believed in US policy circles that following the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, most of the Pashtun Taliban fighters and the entire Taliban leadership led by Mullah Muhammad Omar has relocated to FATA, NWFP and Baluchistan in Pakistan. Similar to the Bush Administration’s policy, the Obama Administration also views air strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas as thwarting the Taliban/al Qaeda’s strike capabilities and organizational prowess. The wisdom behind this policy is that the US cannot defeat the Taliban and the al Qaeda when they can always escape across a porous Afghan-Pakistan border to FATA and NWFP in Pakistan.
Second, the Obama Administration is keen to devise a regional strategy for South Asia primarily to counter the terror outfits dominant in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Towards fulfilling this policy, the Administration hopes to enlist the support of Pakistan, especially its military, followed by India, China, Russia, Iran, the UN, EU and NATO. There is also policy talk of utilizing the cooperation of Saudi Arabia given its strong influence within Pakistan.
Third, it appears that Pakistan has successfully communicated to the US that without the former’s military support and intelligence, winning the "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border areas is going to be impossible for the US. The Pakistani military has, however, indicated to the US that unless the core issue between India and Pakistan--Kashmir--is settled, the Pakistan military cannot relocate its more than 300,000 troops from the India-Pakistan border to the Afghan-Pakistan border as is desired by the US. The festering issue of Kashmir and the image of India as an enemy in the Pakistani psyche will also stand in the way of forming a joint India-Pakistan regional mechanism for fighting terrorism. This was conveyed by Pakistan to Richard Holbrooke during his visit to Pakistan in February and articulated by Pakistan during Obama’s Presidential campaign and later during the US transition phase.
Hence, Obama in his interview to Time Magazine’s Joe Klein on October 23, 2008 stated that "working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a "serious way" would be a critical task". Incidentally, the issue of Kashmir or India was absent from Holbrooke’s agenda during his visit in February after India successfully lobbied against such a move in Washington D.C. However, it can be inferred that the US will bring up the issue of Kashmir in order to ensure that India-Pakistan tensions do not create obstacles for its own "war on terror" in the Afghan-Pakistan border. The reason for this is starkly based on US realpolitik calculations. So long as the 300,000 strong Pakistan military posted along the India-Pakistan border views India as the enemy, relocation of these troops from the India-Pakistan border to fight the US "war on terror" in the Afghan-Pakistan border is a distant possibility. Hence, an India-Pakistan peace deal is in US’s national interest.
Limitations of Obama’s policy
There are several limitations inherent in Obama’s South Asia policy especially with regard to its focus areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
First, the US needs to recognize the fact that air strikes in Pakistan cannot succeed in ousting the key Taliban leadership which has support base within the local Pashtun population in the area. Simple military response is not the answer. A better understanding of Pashtun culture known as Pashtunwali (the way of the Pashtun) or the Pashtun social code is perhaps the need of the hour for the US Afghan-Pakistan counter-insurgency policy. In his book, Soldier Sahibs: The Daring Adventurers Who Tamed India’s Northwest Frontier, Charles Allen wrote that "Pashtunwali is an uncompromising social code so profoundly at odds with Western mores that its application constantly brings one up with a jolt." The core principles of Pashtunwali include self respect, independence, hospitability, justice, tolerance and forgiveness. Pashtun groups revolve around this more than 1000 years old social code and hence, while western governance structures might be missing in Pashtun areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the adherence to Pashtunwali or local unwritten governance code is a matter of honour and pride. The support to the Taliban insurgency from the local population is also governed by this social code based on hospitality and tolerance.
Second, the additional 17, 000 US troops in Afghanistan is raising fears in Pakistan that this will result in more Taliban militants escaping to Pakistan’s tribal areas through the 340 unmanned and illegal border crossings in the Afghan-Pakistan border further de-stabilizing Pakistan.
Third, Saudi Arabia has been one of the largest financiers of radical groups/outfits within Pakistan. Therefore, the US policy talk about utilizing the same regime to fight terrorism within Pakistan appears skewed.
Fourth, the contradiction in US policy towards the Pakistan military is another glaring limitation. On the one hand, the US counter-terrorism officials recognize that Pakistan supports and finances the Taliban as a proxy. In an interview to the Council of Foreign Relations website, Bruce Reidel stated that "In Pakistan, the jihadist Frankenstein monster that was created by the Pakistani Army and the Pakistani intelligence service is now increasingly turning on its creators" . On the other hand, the Pakistan Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kayani was inducted into the US Army’s "Hall of Fame" at a ceremony in Fort Leavenworth on February 26, 2009. This US contradictory posture weakens the resolve to discourage the Pakistan army in its policy of cultivating non-state proxies for fighting India in some imagined fictitious war in the future.
Fifth, the Obama Administration’s tendency to view India-Pakistan relations primarily through the prism of his "war on terror" framework is flawed. The Administration appears to have bought the Pakistan argument that unless Kashmir is resolved, Pakistan military will list the US "war on terror" as number two in its list of priorities; threat perception from India will occupy centre stage in the Pakistan psyche. The US needs to understand that such articulations are not backed by evidence. There is no Indian policy blue print that it will invade Pakistan in the near future contrary to what the Pakistan military repeatedly argues in the international forum.
What India needs to do?
First, India must indicate to the Obama Administration that the links existing between the Pakistan military, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and terror groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) must be dismantled. Also, Pakistan’s rationalisation of this linkage based on its construction of India’s offensive posture or image against Pakistan is untenable. Even during increased tensions between India and Pakistan, post-Mumbai, public debates in India called for caution against the military option and instead urged for cooperation between India and Pakistan in fighting terrorism.
Second, India must objectively place before the Obama Administration that Kashmir is an integral part of India and therefore third party mediation (read US) will not be appreciated. These arguments must be backed by the reality of an existing democratic space in Kashmir today and the improving socio-economic situation. The Kashmiri Muslim is not stopped from travelling to other parts of India or abroad in order to seek better livelihood opportunities or for other purposes as is argued by some influential people in Pakistan. Most importantly, India has never followed or will ever follow a diabolic policy of population extermination in Kashmir, usually a common argument in international law for secession.
Third, India needs to bilaterally engage Pakistan and reinstate the India-Pakistan peace process to deal with the "trust deficit" between both countries and to work out a joint mechanism to fight terrorism.
Finally, India needs to point out to the Obama Administration that the US "war on terror" has not brought about any respite to South Asia. Instead, it has made matters worse. The US presence in Afghanistan as well as the air strikes in Pakistan has further destabilized the region. Hence, while fighting terrorism is a common national security interest for India, Pakistan and the US, the end result should not be an increasingly destabilized South Asia due to increased US troop presence in the region. This is not in India’s -- or the region’s -- interest.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are that of the author and not that of the IDSA.
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