President Barack Obama has been in office hardly for a week now. It will be too early to expect a comprehensive security strategy in thePakistan-Afghanistan region to emerge from his administration. All one can say is that an exercise to evolve a strategy, which will beconsiderably different from that followed by George Bush, has been undertaken at various levels in the White House itself, in the NationalSecurity Council, in the State Department and in the Pentagon and that some Pakistani analysts such as Ahmed Rashid, the well-knownAfghan expert, are playing an active behind-the-scene role in this exercise There has been no involvement of any Indian analyst----eitherIndia or US based--- in this exercise. As a result, non-American inputs for this exercise have been coming largely from Pakistan.
2. On the basis of the initial comments of Obama himself, Vice-President Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, the newly-appointed SpecialRepresentative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and others, one could already make a reasonable assessment that certain aspects of thepolicy followed by the Bush Administration are unlikely to change and that certain other aspects are likely to change.
3. What are the aspects that are unlikely to change?
The US commitment to the war against the remnants of Al Qaeda operating from sanctuaries in the Pakistani territory till Al Qaeda ceases to be a threat to the security of the US homeland and US interests abroad. This commitment is expected to be reinforced with the induction of more US troops (an estimate given is about 30,000) into Afghanistan. The US is prepared to face the risk of increased American fatalities resulting from this surge.
The primacy given by the Bush administration to the military option will stay.Holbrooke has been quoted as saying on January 25,2009: " We plan to work closely with General Petraeus, Centcom, Admiral Mullen, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General McKiernan and the command in Afghanistan, to create a more coherent programme.”
The rules of engagement against suspected terrorists operating from the Pakistani territory as formulated by the Bush Administration will be adhered to. These rules provided for unilateral Predator (unmanned aircraft) strikes against suspected terrorist hide-outs in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan without prior intimation to Pakistan lest the information leak out. Such strikes in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) will be more an exception than the rule and will be avoided in Balochistan where the command and contreol of the Afghan Neo Taliban, headed by its Amir Mulla Mohammad Omar, is allegedly based. There has already been at least one--possibly two--- Predator strikes in Pakistani territory after Obama assumed office. The Bush policy of avoiding ground strikes in Pakistani territory unless there is specific intelligence about the presence of high-value targets such as Osama bin Laden himself and his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri will continue.
4. What are the aspects that could change as a result of the on-going exercise?
A greater priority to non-military aid to Pakistan than to military aid as was the case under Bush.
Linking all aid----whether military or non-military---- to Pakistan's performance in acting against Al Qaeda and the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistani territory. In an article, which appeared in the "Foreign Affairs" magazine last year, Holbrooke said that the Obama Administration would face many tough challenges with regard to the war in Afghanistan and global peace, but the toughest was the insurgent sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan. There will, however, be no such linkage with the Pakistani action against anti-India terrorist sanctuaries such as those of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET, which was involved in the terrorist attack in Mumbai from November 26 to 29,2008. The pressure on Pakistan in respect of Al Qaeda and the Taliban will be diplomatic as well as punitive. There will be no punitive element in respect of the anti-India terrorist infrastructure.
A greater attention to the political dimensions of the security strategy than was given under the Bush Administration. While continuing to say that the US wants to strengthen democracy and improve governance in both Pakistan and Afgfhanistan, but has no interest in specific personalities, the Obama Administration will work discreetly to strengthen the position of Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan and to have Hamid Karzai eased out-----if possible, before the Afghan Presidential elections due in October,2009, or at least during the elections. Obama's advisers are evidently worried that if Zardari is discredited and falls, his replacement may be either the army or Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League, who has been strongly critical of the US policies in the region. Obama and his advisers do not feel comfortable with either.Disappointment with the alleged unsatisfactory record of Karzai----without, however, namimg him--- whether in improving governance or security is evident in all statements on Afghanistan emanating from Obama and his entourage.
Giving a more strategic dimension to the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban than was done under the Bush Administration. It is in the context of this strategtic dimension that one has been seeing repeatedly comments from Obama and others about the need for a regional approach----whether in relation to the restoration of normalcy in Afghanistan or the fight against jihadi terrorism emanating from the Pakistani territory.
5. India comes into their policy calculations with regard to this regional approach. Pakistani analysts such as Ahmed Rashid have been ableto sell the idea to the advisers of Obama that a regional approach to the question of restoration of normalcy In Afghanistan would have toaddress the concerns of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment over what they view as the increasing Indian presence inAfghanistan. This presence is viewed by the military-intelligence establishment as detrimental to Pakistan's historic interests in Afghanistanand its internal security, particularly in Balochistan. Till 2004, the Bush Administration was attentive to Pakistani concerns and sought todiscourage an increase in the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Its policy changed thereafter due to the belief that greater interactionsbetween India and Afghanistan could contribute to the strengthening of democracy and governance in Afghanistan.
6. Similarly, analysts such as Ahmed Rashid have been able to convince Obama and his advisers that without a more active role by the US infacilitating a search for a solution to the Kashmir issue, there will be no incentive for Pakistan to act sincerely and effectively against theterrorist infrastructure in Pakistani territory. The Bush Administratiion was disinclined to follow an activist policy on Kashmir and acceptedIndia's stand that it was a bilteral issue between India and Pakistan in which others should have no role. Obama and his advisers areprepared to revisit this policy, if not immediately, at a later date.
7. In response to Indian sensitivities, the announcement regarding the appointment of Holbrooke and his terms of reference have avoidedany reference to India or Kashmir. Despite this, it was clear from the confident remarks of Ahmed Rashid in his interview to Karan Thapartelecast by the CNBC-TV 18 TV channel on January 27,2009,that while Kashmir may not figures in his terms of reference just now, thequestion of addressing Pakistani concerns over India's relations with Afghanistan would be very much part of his agenda even though notopenly so stated. According to Ahmed Rashid, for this purpose Holbrooke will have to interact with India. There are wheels within wheelsand invisible hyphens within hyphens in the whole exercise relating to Obama's policy making on the security strategy in this region and theexpected role of Holbrooke in it.
8. It is important for India to make it clear to the Obama Administration at an appropriate stage that any departures from the past USpolicies on these two issues will have a negative impact on the growing strategic relationship between India and the US. A frank and firmexpression of the Indian views on this subject and a strict adherence to those views in our policy-making will be necessary not on the basisof what interested analysts such as Ahmed Rashid have been saying, but in response to any discreet pressures from the ObamaAdministration. (28-1-09)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For TopicalStudies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )