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President Obama's challenges in AfPak

March 09, 2009 16:03 IST

In Barbarians at the gate, are we ready, Colonel Athale had spoken about the threat to India from the growing Talibanisation of Pakistan. In this sequel he looks at the options before the US in handling the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

For those inclined not to remember history, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba was carried out by Cuban refugees based in the US, on April 17, 1961, barely a few months after John F Kennedy took over as president. With covert Central Intelligence Agency support, it was an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. The operation was planned by the previous administration nearly a year before and President Kennedy, against his better judgement, gave it a go-ahead.  The Cuban government apparently had prior information, was well prepared and in less than four days, the invasion fizzled out. It was a slap on the face for the US.

But why rake up that history now? For, there is an uncanny resemblance between President Barack Obama and JFK. For starters, both are Harvard products, charismatic, highly intelligent and hugely popular, not just in the US but all over the world, Obama more so than President Kennedy ever was. Like Kennedy, President Obama has gathered round himself some of the brightest people in the US in his cabinet (that even includes a Nobel laureate as energy secretary). Though one must remember the post-facto analysis by David Halberstam in his brilliant book The Best and the Brightest, a searing critique of the Kennedy administration.  

President Obama created history by becoming the first ever Afro-American to reach the highest office in the US. Kennedy's election was similarly path-breaking as he was the first-ever (and the only) Roman Catholic to occupy that office. Both face opposition from determined lobbies of the American Far Right, who hate them.

The challenges facing President Obama are far more daunting than the ones faced by JFK. When JFK became president, the main challenge was a military/technological one. The Soviet Union had stolen a march over the US in the space/missile race and there was the ever present danger of nuclear war between the two, and the world came perilously close to that during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. President Obama faces the twin challenges of an economic meltdown and the AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) combination of a failing State with nuclear weapons.

Both challenges are equally daunting and need urgent attention. But since my own expertise in matters economic may well be below that of even Indian crown prince Rahul Gandhi's, I desist from making any comments on that. But the other issue, nuclear weapons in the hands of a failing State, is very much up my street. There is also a great relevance to the Bay of Pigs episode.

Many strategic analysts later concluded that the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon had its roots in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The Soviet leadership (wrongly) perceived a lack of will on the part of the young Kennedy and launched the adventure of placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. As President Obama divides his time and attention between economy and AfPak, he has to be mindful that a Bay of Pigs-like disaster is averted. For if a wrong signal gets sent to the Al Qaeda/Taliban/Pakistan combine now, use of nuclear weapons that have fallen into hands of the terrorists is a near certainty.  

Understanding the AfPak cauldron

Actually AfPak ought to be called PakAf, for it is Pakistan that is the primary cause of all that is happening in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a symptom, the disease lies in Pakistan. The saga of Afghanistan's 'Talibanisation' began in the last decade of teh 1980s. As the Soviet empire was tottering under the weight of economic bankruptcy, it faced a combination of religious fanatics from Pakistan/Afghanistan, American technology and Saudi money. The Soviet Union wilted under this and withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

While defeat is an orphan, victory has many fathers. The Americans were elated that they had turned Afghanistan into the Soviet Union's Vietnam; the Pakistanis felt it was their victory. The religious zealots believed victory to be theirs as ordained by Allah. But despite the Soviet withdrawal, the government under President Mohammad Najibullah showed extraordinary resilience and survived for three more years, till 1992. He fell only when a large part of his army deserted and Pakistan intervened militarily.

It was the Pakistan People's Party government of Benazir Bhutto that created a force of Pakistani Pakhtoon tribals, called the Taliban ('student' in Urdu, their origin of being students of madarassas or religious Islamic schools). In September 1996, the so-called Taliban, in reality the Pakistani army, invaded Afghanistan and captured the capital Kabul. Thus began the murderous reign of Taliban that lasted till 2001. The Taliban was a Pakistani proxy and part of the Pakistani design of obtaining strategic depth in the West.    

The then American administration under President Bill Clinton not only turned a blind eye to this Pakistani takeover of Afghanistan but even encouraged it. The idea was to use the AfPak combine as a route to get access to the Central Asian energy resources. Almost till the 9/11 attack, secret contacts between American oil company Unocal and Taliban continued. With the Democrats back in power, many of the old Clinton crew has returned to positions of power and influence under President Obama.

Strategy of aid and appeasement

Many old 'Cold Warriors' from the Clinton era are advising compromise as the best way forward. They make a distinction between good Taliban and bad Taliban. In addition, aided by Pakistan, a vociferous lobby is suggesting that more economic aid to Pakistan is the solution. On November 21, 2001, a few days before Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance forces, America permitted a massive rescue operation at Konduz. Thousands of Pakistani soldiers, part of the 'Taliban' regime, were airlifted to safety. Even after 9/11 teh US obviously was still cutting a deal with the rouge army of Pakistan. Given the intimate connection between the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Pakistan army before 9/11, is it conceivable that Pakistan had no idea of the Al Qaeda's plans to attack the US?

A number of studies have shown that there is no necessary link between extremism and poverty. Experience in South Asia has shown that a well qualified doctor, an MIT trained scientist or a six-figure salary earning geek, have joined the ranks of terrorists. The poor merely provide the cannon fodder. Alleviating poverty alone will not make this supply of recruits to terrorism dry up. The Indian experience in Kashmir shows that despite relative prosperity, some in the Kashmir valley continue to root for Al Qaeda and its ilk.

Likely Scenario

A perceptive Pakistani analyst, Dr Farrukh Saleem, writing in The News on February 22 predicts that the American spring offensive in AfPak is aimed at splitting the Al Qaeda from Taliban and thence negotiating with the Taliban from a position of strength. There is still that naive American belief that it can live with and use extremist Islamists.

The same author predicts that all that will happen due to this is that battalions and battalions of hardened Taliban will enter Pakistan and virtually create a firestorm there. The Americans will then declare victory and leave.

One does not have to gaze into a crystal ball to know that such a course of action will only hasten the Taliban takeover of Pakistan. India will obviously be the first target of this beast. But will the Taliban stop at India or will it also go after the Great Satan -- the West? If a recent Lashkar-e-Tayiba document is any guide, then they surely have a grandiose plan to target 320 cities world wide -- only 20 of them are in India.

Workable Strategy

At the risk of oversimplification, Obama and the US may well have to re-visit George F Kennan and his theories of containment. Global Islamism resembles the 'Comintern' -- the phase of international Communism -- in many ways. The biggest obstacle to this strategy is America's addiction to cheap oil, as President Obama himself mentioned in one of his early speeches. But given sensible tax policies and technological innovation, it is not an insurmountable problem. Once having done that, he ought to 'quarantine' the rogue regimes (oil rich or otherwise) and save the US and the world. It is indeed an irony that much attention is focussed on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while very little attention is paid to the existing threat of Pakistani nukes falling into the hands of the Taliban.

President Obama has one other advantage that JFK did not have, he lives in times when with one or two exceptions, there is virtually no 'world' leader who can come anywhere near him. In JFK's time there were several tall world figures. President Obama has this historical opportunity to rescue the world from an economic morass and an Islamist nightmare and put his stamp on world history.

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd) is a former joint director, war studies, ministry of defence, and co-ordinator of the Pune-based Initiative for Peace and Disarmament.

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd)