OPINION

Pakistani military sizes up ‘smart power’

M.K. Bhadrakumar

The Obama administration is adopting a muscular approach to regain lost military ground in the Afghan war.

The latest American contribution to international diplomacy is the concept of “smart power.” Joseph Nye, Harvard professor and author, and ideologue of “soft power,” wrote recently: “Smart power is the combination of hard and soft power. Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.”

The Barack Obama administration lent its imprimatur to the doctrine when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton elaborated, during her confirmation hearings at the Senate, that “America cannot solve the most pressing problems on its own, and the world cannot solve them without America … We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural — picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation.”

The Obama administration will use the resources that produce soft power for America — its captivating culture, its profound values of freedom and its policies abroad — through diplomacy, economic assistance and communication for realising U.S. interests and retaining its global leadership where its awesome military power alone has proved inadequate. How the rebalancing or synergetic integration of hard and soft power actually operates at the ground level will no doubt constitute an intriguing template of the geopolitics of our tough southwest Asian neighbourhood. The Obama administration’s first major act has been the release of a foreign policy document. The document mixed soft and hard power, with the latter having a pronounced edge when it came to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It stressed the determination to “finish the fight against the Taliban and [the] al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.” It said: “Obama and Biden [Vice-President] will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security — the resurgence of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In Pakistan’s case, the document said the U.S. would increase non-military aid (“soft power”) but instantly qualified the offer saying it would “hold them [Islamabad] accountable for security in the border region with Afghanistan.”

Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has since said the U.S. objective will be threefold: to re-establish Kabul’s control over the southern and southeastern region that have come under the Taliban threat; boost security; and improve the delivery of services to the population. He underlined that the threat to the U.S. was now “focussed in the Afghan theatre,” including “both sides” (emphasis added) of the Afghan-Pakistani border and, therefore, the U.S. military was transitioning from the “highest priority that we have given to Iraq over the past several years, and moving that priority to Afghanistan.”

Again, on Thursday, during an appearance at the State Department while announcing the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Obama underlined that the increased violence in the two countries threatened global security and constituted the “central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism.”

He was quite precise about the task ahead for Mr. Holbrooke. “We must understand that we cannot deal with our problem in isolation. There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the al-Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border. And there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” He added: “While we have yet to see another attack on our soil since 9/11, al-Qaeda terrorists remain at large and remain plotting.”

Clearly, the ratio of hard power in the U.S. “smart power” towards Afghanistan and Pakistan will be preponderant. An early decision taken by Mr. Obama with regard to the war as such was to continue to permit the U.S. commanders on the ground in Afghanistan the operational freedom to use pilot-less Predator drones for hunting down militants in Pakistan’s border areas.

Equally, Mr. Holbrooke has been appointed “special representative,” not “special envoy.” Unlike a special envoy who would confine to strictly diplomatic work, a special representative is assigned a far bigger mandate as a “doer.” According to the State Department, Mr. Holbrooke is expected to give inputs to military policy as well as diplomacy, which is why he has not been named “envoy.” Indeed, in his acceptance speech, Mr. Holbrooke confirmed this impression. The Obama administration is surely adopting a muscular approach to regain lost military ground in the Afghan war. This will be a time-bound enterprise, too. Interestingly, it has been clarified that Mr. Holbrooke will not be negotiating with the Taliban.

The Pakistani generals will face a hard taskmaster in Mr. Holbrooke, who once wrote he did not feel the need to be squeamish about hiring “junkyard dogs” (Croats) to kill Serbs in the Balkans in the mid-1990s so long as it ensured that the U.S. geopolitical objectives were optimally realised (which it did, incidentally, with the signing of the Dayton Accords). Pakistan has reacted to his appointment predictably with a straight face — just as Pervez Musharraf did when the U.S. threatened to bomb Pakistan back to Stone Age unless his regime fell in line with the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Kabul in October 2001. The Foreign Office struck an upbeat note and insisted Pakistan “looks forward to enhanced and fruitful engagement with the special envoy to further the cause of peace and stability in the region.”

In the coming months, the Pakistani generals’ best hope lies in tiring out Mr. Holbrooke while praising him to the skies as the right man for the right job at the right time and pledging to supplement his vigorous efforts. Pakistan played a similar game to near-perfection in the mid-1980s during the talks in Geneva under Diego Cordovez when the Soviets had already repeated ad nauseam their keenness to vacate the intervention in Afghanistan and Ronald Reagan was probably close to accommodating Mikhail Gorbachev but Zia-ul-Haq would not allow that to happen unless the Pakistani surrogates among Peshawar-based Afghan Mujahideen were installed in power in Kabul. The U.S. paid the piper but did not call the tune, as Mr. Cordovez sardonically recounted in the riveting book Out of Afghanistan, which he co-authored with Selig Harrison.

From our perspective, what matters most is that the Obama administration’s first moves suggest that the Pakistani military’s game plan to create an India bogey on the eastern border has run out of steam. It appears there are no takers in Washington for the theory that New Delhi is raring to launch a military attack against Pakistan. Credit must go to Indian diplomats, who put across that New Delhi could be trusted to act with restraint.

In sum, Mr. Obama’s tough message to the Pakistani generals is “No more alibis, sir. Get cracking, we’ve a job to do.” Mr. Holbrooke’s mandate is clear-cut and there has been no further talk of “grand bargains” either. This is where India can help. Indeed, all can help — officials, politicians, the media, strategists and even civil society — in jettisoning rhetoric. Two, New Delhi must engage Washington and key regional capitals — Moscow, Beijing, Tashkent, Tehran, Riyadh — in a sustained dialogue over Afghanistan. Periodical foreign office consultations may not suffice. We cannot remain curious bystanders anymore. Enduring peace in Afghanistan has become a requirement of India’s national security.

New Delhi’s decision to participate in the forthcoming international conference in Moscow on Afghanistan under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, seen as a “major diplomatic event,” and to involve in the SCO’s Contact Group on Afghanistan is a sign of new thinking. On Monday, the Obama presidency took the first step towards the Kremlin. Ms Clinton is expected to visit Moscow in March, while Mr. Obama will meet his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, on the sidelines of the G-20 on April 2 in London and possibly fly to Moscow following the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit on April 3-4 in Strasbourg and Kehl. Meanwhile, the annual Munich security conference next week facilitates more contacts. Afghanistan will be a key topic in the Russian-American exchanges. Last week, Washington negotiated a transit corridor for non-military cargoes for Afghanistan via Russian territory. The U.S. need for Russian cooperation is acute with the expected level of military operations in Afghanistan.

Finally, Mr. Obama’s Al-Arabiya interview on Tuesday unmistakably signals that Washington is resetting the compass of the “war on terror.” This is the right moment for us to contemplate how to contribute to a regional initiative. The objective should be to create a regional consensus on an Afghan settlement that makes up for Washington’s continued perilous dependence on the Pakistani generals to deliver.

Recommended for you