Finding solutions for the developing situation in South Asia through the lens of conventional strategising is a formidable challenge today. In itself, ‘conflict’ is unpredictable and the outcome always uncertain. Conventional strategy, never daunted by complications of geography and history, has its answers ready. The threat of Islamism is to be undercut away from the areas of consequence for energy security of the West. The Af-Pak region serves as a remote enough battle ground to defuse the threat posed by the Arab-centric Al Qaeda to the oil rich regimes of Middle East. Energy security is thus preserved even as the battle is taken to the Al Qaeda. The hitch is in an uncooperative Taliban. How to negotiate this impasse is the preoccupation of the surprise Nobel prize winner, President Barak Obama.
His commanding general in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, has recommended another troop surge. His Vice President, J Biden, has suggested a ‘Pakistan First’ strategy in which Pakistan, suitably incentivised through the sweeteners in the Kerry-Lugar bill, is pressurised to go after the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine, even as the US conducts stand off technology intensive operations. A South Asian expert of Indian origin, Ashley Tellis, has advised the US to ‘invest and endure’ as against ‘improve and exit’. Thus, conventional strategy has come up with a solution: a greater exertion of power. In other words, ‘more of the same’; with the Bush determined trajectory for the region being taken to its logical conclusion. This exercise of power would impress the ‘moderate’ Taliban to break ranks; gain a ‘position of strength’ and also convey to the Pakistanis that the US means to stay the course.
The situation Obama is faced with is reminiscent of the one faced by his democrat forebear who once carried an equal burden of expectations on his young shoulders, John F Kennedy. Can Obama trust conventional strategy that has once again come up with the same answer to a strategic conundrum as in the run up to Vietnam: ‘more is better’?
Indian analysts, working in the same analytical paradigm, have come up with equally predictable answers. The Kabul embassy attack only reinforces their recommendation. India’s Foreign Secretary, Ms Nirupama Rao, averred to foreign fingerprints during her visit to the damaged embassy. The Afghan foreign minister blamed Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Pakistani protestations of like Indian interference in Afghanistan, that found mention in the McChrystal report, and in Baluchistan, that worked their way into the Sharm es Sheikh joint statement between the two states, indicate that a contest between intelligence agencies is underway. India is hoping its strategic partner, the US, would follow through on a military solution. To India, any opening up to the Taliban, in the words of Ms. Rao, amounts to ‘facile efforts at a Faustian bargain’. A military solution has value. The Taliban would be kept occupied. The possibility of the violence destabilising Pakistan is not one seen as being averse to Indian interests.
Pakistan too is working in the same power paradigm. If Pakistani interests are to be preserved in Afghanistan, then the Taliban, earlier nurtured and later harboured by Pakistan, requires to be inserted into power equations in Kabul. This may require convincing the US that messing with the Taliban would be a step on a slippery slope. Therefore, accommodation is presented as possible, with the Taliban disengaging from international terrorists in return from a share in power. Pakistan has therefore resisted all efforts to get them to ‘do more’. Instead, a section in the Pakistani establishment has connived to strengthen the Taliban in order to make their power appear unmistakable to the US. The Taliban have duly obliged by mounting a daring raid at the very heart of Pakistan, its Army Headquarters. This is to moderate any pro-US inclinations of Pakistan Army Chief of Staff Asfaq Kayani. The divide in Pakistan is now in the open.
What lies at the interface of outcomes of strategising in the conventional mode in the three countries? Should Obama follow the advice received, additional troops would come into the theatre and Pakistan would be leaned on. Pakistan, though willing to play along as in the Musharraf years, would likely encounter an internal cleavage along pro-US and anti-US lines. Unwilling to commit national suicide in a civil war, it would tend towards the more powerful, anti-US side. Unable to make Pakistan budge, the US would rely on India. India, sighting a strategic opportunity, would lend itself to containment. Pakistan, using a strategic tool it has not quite rolled back despite Indian entreaties since the Mumbai attacks, would strike back. The confrontation could acquire a military dimension, with nationalism aroused publics on both sides getting into the act.
Obama is currently in the midst of critical decision making. The influences on this decision are not South Asia specific. They are anchored in the fortunes of the Democrats in congressional elections next year, in his own re-election prospects two years down the road and in American public opinion increasingly inclined to view the war negatively. These decisions are less likely to be based on the likelihood or otherwise of nuclear war in South Asia, the inevitability of populations that would be displaced, the dangers of destabilising a nuclear armed state, the likelihood of right wing formations gaining ground and the continuing ill effects of conflict on Afghans.
Nevertheless, South Asia awaits the decision with bated breath. Obama has earned reputation through this Prague and Cairo speeches for departing from the conventional. Escaping the confines of conventional strategy would require political wisdom. Can Obama rise to his potential, borne witness to by non less than the Nobel Prize committee?