Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Preparing for the Endgame. But which one?

Preparing for the Endgame. But which one?
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 04.04.2010

The season is on for excessive analyses of the Endgame in Afghanistan which to me is nowhere in sight.

If the war in Afghanistan were nearing some sort of a conclusion, surely Washington would be in grasp of a script. This is not the impression I have after a recent visit to that capital.

Indeed, the “18 month deadline” for scaling down in Afghanistan is not true. That “may be” a notional date when an appraisal will be made of the situation on the ground to explore possible exit strategies.

So pre occupied has President Obama been with the Health Care Bill, that he has not been able to find time to address the foreign policy challenges facing the new administration.

One such challenge is the growing allegation by the administration’s critics, mostly Republicans, that Washington was causing anxieties among traditional allies – Israel and Japan for instance.

This is a sort of pre emptive murmuring campaign by the Republicans who should know that a combination of foreign policy debacles and the economic meltdown are a hold over from the Bush years. That is why neither Israel nor Japan, among others, is listening.

The “End of History” mood in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Collapse is giving way to realism. Phrases like “full spectrum dominance”, an article of faith with the neo-cons, now cause derisive laughter.

Power is now circumscribed and Americans know it. So, whether they like it or not, the US base at Okinawa in Japan will have to the vacated soon. North Korea is obstinate on the nuclear issue, as is Iran. China is standing its ground on currency and trade.

Vice President Joe Biden is roundly snubbed by Israel which announces more settlements in Jerusalem, exactly the opposite of what the Vice President required to give Israel-Palestinian peace talks an impetus.

Nearer home, in Afghanistan, even President Hamid Karzai, who would wilt without American support, was able to withstand the Richard Holbrook – Peter Galbraith combined displeasure after irregularities were discovered in his election. Peter Galbraith has since resigned.

Why, India too has successfully thwarted the once all powerful Holbrook’s instinctive interest in the Indo-Pak-Kashmir theme. Although I am not so sure that allowing a powerful Hillary Clinton appointee to be cultivated exclusively by Islamabad is such a good thing after all.

Whether on Af-Pak, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is positioning himself to claim a substantive role in the Afghan Endgame with Washington’s support or disapproval is still unclear. He demands a role for his “assets” (Mullah Omar for one) in any future dispensation in Afghanistan and, ofcourse, a drastic curtailment of any Indian profile.

Gen. Kayani spoke with considerable candour at a recent press briefing. “We seek strategic depth in Afghanistan.” He clarified: “Strategic depth does not imply controlling Afghanistan”. Rather, “if Afghanistan is peaceful, stable and friendly, we have our strategic depth because our western border is secure – then we are not looking both ways.”

In other words, Islamabad, seeks a controlling role in the evolution of a possible outcome in Afghanistan, (“strategic depth”) so that its western flank is secure, enabling it to concentrate on the eastern front. Well, what can New Delhi do to assuage its fears on the “eastern front?” It is willing to travel reasonable lengths to minimize Pakistani fears provided Indian public opinion is not kept in a state of agitation by acts of terrorism traced to Pak territory.

At one stage Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf had agreed that acts of terror would not derail the “peace process” which was “irreversible”. But that was in circumstances when both sides saw the pursuit of peace as mutually beneficial.

The protracted Afghan war, with its costs to the Pakistani state itself with incremental acts of terror, wobbly civilian structure, has caused the Army to come out of the shadows as the ultimate protector of the Islamic Republic. To come on top, surmounting internal obstacles, the surest mantra for the army is to build up the ogre on the eastern front, the “Hamsaya dushman”, (enemy neighbour) and “Hindu India”, in drawing room murmur.

To negotiate current complexities, the Pak army finds this stance more tactical maneuver than a durable strategy. But a Pakistan without a long term strategy, towards India, among others, and holding onto the coat of the US (witness the March 25 US-Pak strategic dialogue) against whom its citizens are set in ever higher decibel levels, is clearly proceeding in a direction without reliable compasses.

How Pakistan emerges from the “current complexities” is itself as much of a puzzle as are the contours of the over analyzed Endgame.

A possible conclusion to the Afghan war came into unexpectedly sharp focus at the London conference on Afghanistan in January. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, saddled with an unpopular war on the eve of a very difficult election, pushed for reconciliation with the Taliban as the swiftest exit strategy. Who can blame Gen. Kayani for taking this as a signal for a rapid movement towards reconciliation with the Taliban Pakistan knows? In fact, the British position is at a variance from the political-military success sought by Washington as a pre cursor to dialogue.

Quite frankly, there is no conclusive policy, in Washington, or London. The internal situation in Pakistan is uncertain, as is the ground reality in Afghanistan.

Secretary General of UN Ban Ki Moon says the solution will have to be found by the Afghan people. This is in line with President Obama’s symbolic visit to Kabul which seemed to sanctify Hamid Karzai as the ultimate deliverer, even though the jury is still out on whether he has it in him to take the nation out of the thicket.

In brief, no endgame yet, only lots of people in frenetic activity. Yes, the only endgame on the horizon concerns President Zardari which is a pity only on one count: he was quite nice about India. The delay in his departure reflects on the uncertain course the Army has to traverse.

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