What to expect from Obama's visit

"A candid discussion of the strategic implications of the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan must be carried out." Photo: AP   | Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

The visit of the head of state of the sole, though somewhat depleted, superpower provides us a timely opportunity to apprise our guest of our assessment of the strategic environment surrounding us and to engage him in an in-depth discussion on how to deal with the common threat to our countries and peoples, nearly all of which emanates from the Af-Pak region. The success of Barack Obama's visit should be judged, not so much by whether the U.S. lifts the sanctions on ‘the entities' or whether or not he softens his rhetoric on outsourcing, important as these issues are. There are far more serious subjects which should occupy the limited time the leaders spare for a tête-à-tête or talks at the delegation level. A candid discussion of the strategic implications of the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan must be carried out.

The war in Afghanistan, it seems, is not a major issue in the forthcoming mid-term congressional and gubernatorial elections in America. Mr. Obama would no doubt wish to make it an equally not-a-critical issue when it is time for him to start campaigning for a second term. Indeed, it is this factor which has dominated his approach to the Afghan war, as Bob Woodward has brought out so conclusively in Obama's Wars. Henry Kissinger could not resist the temptation of being clever when he said the ‘exit strategy' was all about exit and not about strategy; in fact, however, Mr. Obama has been discussing strategy almost since his first week in office.

Obama's Wars also brings out the President's preoccupation with Pakistan, persuading its leaders to cooperate with America in degrading and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. As one of Mr. Obama's advisors said during the endless hours spent on discussing the ‘options' the President could consider, all the persuasion took the form of carrot and no stick. Nearly $20 billion has been sunk into Pakistan since 2001 and more is being pledged almost every week. It must be the highest investment, with very little to show for it, per sq km in the world. The Americans have also felt obliged to assure Pakistan that their President will visit Islamabad next year, as well as not to make too much of a fuss over the Sino-Pak civil nuclear deal. It is not only India that has to be pragmatic in its foreign policy.

One reads in the Woodward book that the Americans have identified 150 targets which they would bomb in case of another 9/11-type attack on the American homeland that was traced to Pakistan's badlands. Perhaps the Pakistan military takes the American threat more seriously than India's when it says another ‘Mumbai' would engender a robust response from us. Happily for India-U.S. relations, Mr. Obama's initial inclination to include India, or more specifically Kashmir, in Richard Holbrooke's mandate was quickly discarded, thanks to New Delhi's timely and effective intervention. Nonetheless, the President, and more so his advisors, have convinced themselves that the key to obtaining Pakistan's full cooperation lies in prevailing upon New Delhi to ‘cooperate' with Islamabad in tackling the root causes of the crisis between ‘the two nuclear-armed arch enemies', as India and Pakistan are invariably described in the American media.

The extent to which the Americans and others in the western world have bought the Pakistani line should be a matter of concern to us. It also shows that Pakistan's propaganda machine is working ceaselessly in all those capitals. One explanation for this bias is that Pakistan is considered an underdog and the world always has sympathy for underdogs. Pakistan's very weakness is its strength. But there is no getting away from the fact that we have to intensify our PR efforts; the lobbying firms we have hired in Washington should be made to produce better results. It is here that Mr. Obama's visit provides us with an excellent opportunity to disabuse him of the falsehoods Pakistan has been spreading about us.

For example, many in the West, and perhaps elsewhere as well, believe that India does present a threat to Pakistan and that the threat would become the most acute if there was a pro-India government in Kabul. The concept of ‘strategic depth' is not dismissed summarily by others, least of all by the Pentagon. Pakistan's argument that India and an India-friendly Afghanistan could join forces and attack it, however laughable, is not scoffed at by all think tanks abroad. In this writer's interaction with several think tanks recently in America, he was told that India must not take advantage of Pakistan's precarious position at this stage, that India must “give comfort” to Pakistan, that India must engage Pakistan in a composite dialogue, including specifically on the question of Kashmir, etc. One influential think tank even suggested that in order to bring Pakistan fully on board in the war against the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it must be offered a ‘quid' in the shape of a sphere of influence in the Afghan provinces adjoining Pakistan.

When pointed out that this would in effect mean conceding a sphere of influence to China, they were least concerned. All this, despite the Indian government's persistence with dialogue notwithstanding Pakistan's stalling of proceedings against the perpetrators of 26/11 and the undisputable links between the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The pressure on us would have been severer had we refused all contact with Pakistan after 26/11. However, the government's knee-jerk reaction every time Pakistan utters the ‘K' word is un-understandable. We have a perfectly good case on Kashmir and in fact we should be the ones to want to discuss Kashmir, since it is Pakistan which aggressed against us and is still occupying our territory. We should not be afraid of the ‘K' word. We should ask those who want us to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan: “What is it that you want us to discuss regarding the Kashmir issue? Are you even sure that Pakistan wants to ‘solve' the issue, except by the only way that we will never agree to, namely to hand over the whole of Kashmir, or at least the entire Valley to them?” Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf came close to concluding an agreement on Kashmir, but that has been disowned by Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

President Obama might not necessarily ‘buy' these arguments from the think-tankwallahs, although the think tanks in America are as aggressive in pushing their ideas on decision-makers as their businesses are in pushing their products in overseas markets. But he is looking for a way out of the Afghan quagmire and is most anxious that the process of ‘reconciliation' with the Taliban should succeed. He does seem to be persuaded that Pakistan's help in this process is indispensable, even though President Hamid Karzai may have his doubts about conceding anything more than a consultative role to Pakistan. Reports that Pakistan arrests any Taliban commander believed to be talking to the representatives of the Kabul government indicate Gen. Kayani's determination to keep the process firmly in Pakistan's control. The U.S. is anxious not to risk alienating the General described by Mr. Holbrooke as the most important political factor in Pakistan. (Woodward's book has the following gem. Secretary Hillary Clinton asked Mr. Karzai during his visit to Washington in May 2010: “Do you really think the ISI could pick up Mullah Omar if they wanted?” Karzai reached over and plucked a chocolate chip cookie from his plate. “They could deliver Mullah Omar like I can pick up this cookie,” he said.)

Every such visit does not have to be “highly successful” or “historic.” The success or otherwise of the visit must not be judged by our getting concessions on some bilateral issues. Nor should Mr. Obama expect to clinch the deal for sale of 126 American fighter aircraft at this juncture. The President might say something about India's ambition for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. His advisors presumably have explained to him that the Indian public opinion will not be satisfied with some vague formula of the U.S. being sympathetic to India wanting to play a bigger role on international forums including the U.N., etc. If he does not bring himself to expressing unambiguous support, he would be well advised not to say anything on the subject.

The real criterion for measuring success would lie in assessing whether or not the two leaders have reached consensus on defining the dangers that their, and other, countries face from the Af-Pak area and how they intend to tackle it. They must agree on a mechanism for arriving at such assessment and there is only one way of doing it. What is needed is a trilateral forum of consultations consisting of the U.S., India and Afghanistan.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 9:35:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/What-to-expect-from-Obamas-visit/article15793248.ece

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