Denying victory to the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans by not allowing them to prevail militarily on the ground and defeating Al Qaeda by continuing to go after its leaders and sanctuaries threatening the US Homeland from Pakistani territory will be the two main objectives of President Barack Obama in the remaining three years of his Presidency before the next Presidential elections are due in 2012.
2. This became clear from his remarks to the US troops at Bagram in Afghanistan and after his meeting with President Hamid Karzai at Kabul during a surprise unannounced visit to Afghanistan on the night of March 28,2010. It was not just a morale-boosting and publicity-earning visit. It was a proactive visit meant to convey a message to the Talibans, Al Qaeda, the Afghan people and the regional players such as Pakistan that the US will to prevail in the Af-Pak region is not weakening.
3. He told the US troops: " You are here to keep America safe and secure..... The US had been attacked viciously on 9/11, and Al Qaeda leaders and their Taliban allies are still in the region and have to be defeated....The US aimed to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven and reverse the Taliban's momentum. The (US) troops are being backed up by a clear mission and the right strategy and they would have the support to get the job done. ...I'm confident all of you here are going to get the job done in Afghanistan."
4.Obama sought to remove two misperceptions which have come to cloud his Af-Pak policy. The first misperception is about alleged creeping defeatism in Washington DC resulting in misgivings as to whether the US can prevail over the Afghan Taliban and whether it wants to prevail. The proceedings and decisions of the recently-held London conference on Afghanistan have unfortunately created an impression as if the US will in Afghanistan is weakening and as if Obama is looking for an honourable way out----if necessary, even by making a deal with some sections of the Afghan Taliban at the expense of Karzai. The second misperception is about alleged creeping disenchantment with Karzai. Though this disenchantment was attributed to Karzai's perceived failure to provide a clean and effective administration to the Afghan people and to make satisfactory progress in raising the Afghan National Army to the level of being able to ensure peace and security when the US troops ultimately leave Afghanistan, many misinterpreted his attitude to Karzai lacking in warmth as indicating that he might be prepared to ditch him should that become necessary for peace-making in Afghanistan.
5. Obama has sought to remove these misperceptions by inviting Karzai to Washington in May for talks and by an open endorsement of Karzai in the following words: "The American people are encouraged by the progress that's been made. I hope to see more improvement on governance, anti-corruption efforts and judicial process."He reiterated his belief of a linkage between peace and security in the Af-Pak region and homeland security. Whereas Iraq throws no shadow on the US homeland security, the Af-Pak region does. This has been a constant factor in Obama's thinking from the days of his Presidential campaign in 2008. Unless the Talibans are weakened beyond recovery through military and political means and unless Al Qaeda's leaders and sanctuaries operating from Pakistani territory are decisively defeated, the threat to the US homeland security from the Pashtun belt will remain.
6. While the objectives of Obama's Af-Pak mission during the remaining years of his first tenure as the President have been made clear, his remarks in Afghanistan did not elaborate on how he is going to achieve them----apart from his reiterating the US resolve to continue the Drone (pilotless plane) strikes on the hide-outs of the Talibans and Al Qaeda in Pakistani territory. In his remarks in Kabul, Obama made an open and clear-cut enunciation of the continuing need for the Drone strikes. He said: ""We have struck blows against Al Qaeda's leadership as well as the Taliban's.They are hunkered down. They are worried about their own safety. It's harder for them to move and to train and to plot and to attack. All of that makes America safer and we are going to keep them on the run."
7. Interestingly more by coincidence than by design,on March 25,2010, the US Government for the first time offered a legal justification of its Drone strikes as justified by its right to “self-defence” under international law. The Agence France Press (AFP) quoted State Department legal adviser Harold Koh as saying in a speech that the US was in “an armed conflict” with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and its affiliates as a result of the September 11 attacks “and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defence under international law”. “With respect to the subject of targeting, which has been much commented upon in the media and international legal circles, there are obviously limits to what I can say publicly.What I can say is that it is the considered view of this administration – and it has certainly been my experience during my time as legal adviser – that US targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war. In all of our operations involving the use of force the administration was committed by word and deed to conducting ourselves in accordance with all applicable law”.
8. The first public admission of the intensified Drone strikes and the legal justification for them and Obama's reiteration of the US determination to continue them underline the belief in the Obama Administration that while the Pakistan Army might have taken action against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and arrested some leaders of the Afghan Taliban, it cannot be depended upon to act against Al Qaeda and its associates operating from sanctuaries in Pakistani territory. Pakistan's interest in co-operating with the US is restricted to its keenness to regain its so-called stratregic depth in Afghanistan, eliminate the Indian presence in Afghanistan with US diplomatic support and to neutralising the threat posed to Pakistan by the TTP. For protecting the US homeland from any more threats arising from the Af-Pak region the US has to rely on its own efforts.
9. US policy-makers must realise that so long as it has not neutralised Al Qaeda and its associates, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) operating from Pakistani territory, the US cannot afford to even consider withdrawing from Afghanistan. Hopefully, this realisation must be one of the outcomes of Obama's visit to Kabul. (29-3-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )