By Swapan Dasgupta
It is fortuitous that the increased security arrangements after the blast of July 2008 prevented any Indian casualty from last Thursday’s repeat attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Yet, by killing 17 innocent Afghans, mainly visa-seekers, the perpetrators managed to send a chilling message to the Government in Kabul and the US-led NATO forces that India’s nominal presence in Afghanistan will be violently contested.
It is reassuring, at least judging by the forthright reaction of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, that India will not countenance any intimidation from either the Taliban or Pakistan. It can only be hoped that the gaffe-prone ministers in the Ministry of External Affairs don’t mess with this resolve by suggesting that India can do business with the Taliban (as SM Krishna did to Wall Street Journal last month) either directly or through Twitter.
That the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan military establishment are flip sides of the same coin is a widely known fact many in the Barack Obama administration choose to wilfully overlook. Yet, ignoring reality or inexplicably winning a Nobel Peace Prize for good intentions does not change the ground situation. It does, however, embolden Pakistan into making life even more miserable for the “foreign” troops that deprived the country of its free run in Afghanistan prior to 2002.
Pakistan’s involvement in the July 2008 bombing was confirmed by both the authorities in Kabul and US intelligence. But even damaging charges of organising cross-border terrorism has left Pakistan unfazed. The cockiness won’t change if yet another smoking gun is held up as proof of its role as the sponsor of last Thursday’s outrage.
Pakistan’s arrogant belief that it can play by its own rules didn’t come about in isolation. In the present context, it owes almost everything to the widespread global belief that the Obama Administration is in complete disarray over how to cope with Afghanistan. From Obama’s perspective, Afghanistan is a mess he inherited from his predecessor. That’s only partially true. Whereas President George W Bush was clear in his mind why the US forces were there in Afghanistan and who they were fighting against, Obama’s conception is hazy and angst-ridden. In a series of high-level consultations involving both his military and civilian staff, the US President is reported to have repeatedly asked: “Who is our adversary?”
Such a profundity can impress well-meaning Norwegians into handing out a Nobel Prize. But it is nevertheless revealing. It suggests that, like those who drove his election campaign to heights of frenzy, Obama just wants to get the hell out of Afghanistan, even if that leads to the devastated country turning into what General McChrystal termed “Chaos-istan.”
American liberals have always been uneasy with the “war on terror.” After eight years of zero terrorism inside the US, they now feel the danger is past. This is the sub-text of the proposal doing the rounds of Washington DC that the fight ought to be against Al Qaeda and not the Taliban as if they live in separate worlds. Pakistan is pandering to that defeatism by appearing to come down hard on some of its own Islamist deviants.
The Obama Administration — described recently by one of its critics as the “biggest bunch of crybabies” seen for a long time inside the Beltway — mirrors the mood of its liberal constituency. It is desperately looking for a way out of Afghanistan and ignoring the views of its military brass, particularly General McChrystal’s demand for 40,000 more troops. Left to himself, Obama would willingly outsource Afghanistan to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and focus on what interests him — twisting India’s tail on climate change and non-proliferation and fighting Fox News and Rush Limbaugh on healthcare.
Pakistan has shrewdly assessed Obama’s vulnerability. It is aware that Obama needs Pakistan more than it needs the annual US package of $1.5 billion for the next five years. Pakistan may be the catchment area for mercenaries but it is not willing to sell itself cheap. The custodians of Pakistani national interest know that a total of $7.5 billion tied to the Kerry-Lugar Bill’s conditionalities is nothing compared to what Pakistan will gain by recovering Afghanistan.
Pakistan is aiming for the Afghanistan that existed prior to 9/11, a country that was under its sole influence. It may take firm steps to keep some of Osama bin Laden’s hotheads from mounting attacks on the Saudi princes and targets in the West but as far as it is concerned, all attacks on Indian interests is kosher. The Pakistan military establishment wants to scuttle anything in the Kerry-Lugar Bill which restricts its operational independence. It doesn’t give a fig whether or not the US Congress issues it a good character certificate or not. It is proceeding on the simple assumption that the US and NATO forces want to leave fast and have no one but Pakistan to hand over charge before flying away on the proverbial last helicopter out of Kabul.
For Pakistan, events in Afghanistan seem a win-win situation. Its worst nightmare is if General McChrystal now gets it into his head that no decisive victory against the Taliban is possible unless there is a simultaneous assault on the lifeline of the movement in Quetta and other parts of Pakistan. There is an additional concern. What if the US-led forces suddenly feel that Afghanistan’s future is better protected by those non-Pushtuns who kept up the fight against the Taliban in the mid-1990s, when the world forgot Afghanistan?
Of course, the US won’t do anything so far-sighted. But that shouldn’t deter India from deciding unilaterally that its old friends in the Northern Alliance need some extra encouragement. India has been bizarrely charged by General McChrystal with “exacerbating regional tensions” by helping the Afghan people. It’s time we made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.