Many U-turns and a full circle

It's another sign of changing times — and changing U.S. policy in Afghanistan. A story in the New York Times this week describes how U.S. and NATO forces are turning their opium eradication programme on its head during their latest Marjah offensive. Troops are now allowing poppy cultivation-clearly meant for the Taliban's coffers, and not destroying them, as they have done in the past 9 years of the war on terror. “We don't trample the livelihood of those we're trying to win over,” says a U.S. military official. Yet trampling over opium crops has been the stated policy of the U.S. all these years — the new strategy causing even an Afghan counter-narcotics official to expostulate, “The Taliban are the ones who profit from opium, so you are letting your enemy get financed by this so he can turn around and kill you back.” But others, like the U.N. official quoted say, postponing the eradication of poppy as a goal is the sensible, pragmatic thing to do.


U.S. Foreign policy is often singled out for its rank pragmatism that allows it to make such sudden and sharp turns in its national self-interest. In South Asia in particular, the year 2010 has already been marked by many twists and turns.

Take for example, the Good Taliban, Bad Taliban policy. When President Obama took office last January, his new-look Af-Pak policy was seen as a ray of hope — one that would realistically cut down the Taliban's vice grip by dividing them into some groups the U.S. could do business with, and those it would be impossible to live with — especially the hardcore elements who had taken Afghanistan back into medieval times in 1996.

Over the year, it became clear that either the Obama administration couldn't distinguish, or decided not to — and all Taliban, including the Quetta Shura with perhaps the exception of Mullah Omar came into talks with the Afghan government, encouraged by the American government.

Since the London conference on Afghanistan this January, that policy has further twisted around like a spirogyra — with the latest round of talks between President Karzai's government and the dreaded warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar ‘s group. Originally created by the ISI and CIA to fight Russian forces, Hekmatyar is feared for the violence that his group — the Hizb-e-Islami unleashed on Kabul in the early 1990s, attacks that eventually paved the way for the Taliban to take power. Hekmatyar, a former Afghan Prime Minister has, over time, been accused of allying with everyone from the U.S. and Pakistan to Saudi Arabia to Iran, and then betraying them. He now seems poised at getting back at the helm of his country's affairs — aided, ironically by American officials who proclaimed him a ‘global terrorist' in 2003. That Hekmatyar himself claimed in 2006 that he had helped Osama Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora, and that he and the Hizb were once charged with an assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai, are forgotten facts.

President Karzai's own turnaround this year has been remarkable too — his recent statement likening Pakistan to a conjoined twin came after years of accusing Islamabad of fomenting violence in Afghanistan, and directly blaming the ISI for blasts like the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008. In August 2008, Karzai had gone as far as to threaten that Afghan troops would cross over the border to fight the Taliban, if Pakistan refused to crack down on them. Increasingly in the New Year though, Afghan officials are blaming their other neighbour, Iran for funding and arming the Taliban.

Other curious events have followed inside Pakistan as well — the arrest of Mullah Baradar, Mullah Omar's deputy, was hailed by the U.S. as evidence that Pakistan was finally cracking down on the “big fish.” But then it emerged that Baradar had been in talks with members of Karzai's family, and had reportedly even agreed to join the ‘grand reconciliation' Loya Jirga scheduled for May 1st — the arrest the result of a double game on a noted double-gamer.

It is that Loya Jirga that both the U.S. and Pakistan are working on now, along with other issues at the Strategic dialogue in Washington this week — with Islamabad in a position to demand, and Washington in the mood to accommodate. At the helm of negotiations is not the Pakistani government, but Army Chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani — who the U.S. seems increasingly comfortable with. Many of the items on Pakistan's 56 page wish-list are demands the U.S. has rejected in the past, but now is willing to talk about, including an India-type nuclear deal, and access to drone technology.

Conversely, India is feeling some rigidity in the U.S. position, and a hardening of the Pakistani one when it comes to its own war on terror. In the past few months the Pakistani government has made it clear it doesn't intend to act against Hafiz Saeed, believed by India to be a mastermind of the Mumbai attacks. Shutting down the Lashkar-e-Taiba seems an even more remote possibility, given the public rallies its leaders are able to address, including one on Tuesday in the POK town of Kotli, addressed by LeT chief Abdul Wahid Kashmiri and Hizbul Mujahideen Chief Syed Salahuddin. Despite statements by visiting U.S. dignitaries on acting against the LeT, Washington has also snubbed New Delhi in the David Headley case. First, the U.S. government entered into a plea bargain that saved the LeT operative from both execution and extradition. Then, despite an assurance from President Obama to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last November, officials are dragging their feet on even granting Indian officials ‘direct access' to the man. A man who admitted in court last week that he helped plan, prepare and execute the Mumbai attacks.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh now heads to Washington in April for the Global Nuclear Security Summit and must be fully prepared for what may follow. It is extremely likely that fresh from his victory on Healthcare Reform, President Obama will lay out his next priority — global nuclear disarmament, with a special emphasis on curbing nuclear weapons capability in South Asia. According to many U.S. analysts, he could best achieve this by pushing both India and Pakistan into test ban treaties, with promises of more nuclear energy deals in the bargain.

Ironically, with the U.S. administration's willingness to even consider Pakistan's five-year-old request for nuclear parity with India, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are, as one analyst put it, setting the clock back to a decade ago: India and Pakistan being put on par with each other (something the Bush era worked hard to de-hyphenate), the U.S. more dependent on Pakistan for logistics, a military chief gaining control in Islamabad and the Taliban closer to sharing power in Kabul. In such a scenario the U.S.'s U-turns don't just bring the region full circle, but may leave India, unless South Block reads all the signs together, out of the loop.

( Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)

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