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Obama falters in Af-Pak: Where's India's response?

April 14, 2011 17:46 IST

New Delhi will have to fashion a pro-active foreign policy response that relies less on Washington in crafting an appropriate response to the changing dynamic in Af-Pak, says Harsh V Pant.

In its report to the US Congress last week on the state of the war in Afghanistan and the efforts to defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Obama administration went public with its frustration with Pakistan's efforts at tackling Al Qaeda and other militants. The 38-page report makes clear that despite a sustained offensive against it, the Taliban insurgency has gained strength in Pakistan's border regions with Afghanistan, underlining that 'there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency'.

The situation in Af-Pak is getting complicated by the day and the Obama administration is bitterly divided over its future course of action to fashion a coherent strategy towards the region. Recent events have only compounded the confusion. On March 20, Terry Jones, pastor of a tiny Florida church, declared Islam's holy book 'guilty' of 'crimes against humanity' and ordered it set ablaze in a portable fire pit.

Days later, after the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, decided to ask for Jones' prosecution, Afghans took to the streets to protest the burning of the Koran. An angry mob killed at least seven foreigners in northern Afghanistan and set fire to a United Nations compound in Mazar-e Sharif, a city where the NATO forces have transferred power to the local Afghan forces. Another bloody day followed in Kandahar, when police fought with protesters, leaving at least nine dead and more than 80 injured.

The ongoing tumult prompted General David H Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, and his civilian counterpart, Ambassador Mark Sedwill, to issue a statement reiterating "our condemnation of any disrespect to the Holy Koran and the Muslim faith."

When Jones threatened to burn a Koran on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks last year, Petraeus was among several top US officials who strongly urged against it and warned about the troubling consequences that could arise in Afghanistan. Jones eventually called off the event only to announce earlier this year in January that he was going to 'put the Koran on trial'.

He said he didn't hear a single complaint. The trial was held March 20, and the holy text subsequently burned, leading to turmoil in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, suicide bombers struck a Sufi shrine compound in Pakistan last month, killing more than 40 people. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has repeatedly aimed attacks at Sufi shrines across the country, along with government targets and security forces installations, promptly claimed responsibility for the attack. The latest attack is another attempt by militants to exacerbate the ideological divides that exist within different schools of Sunni Islam. There have been growing concerns that militants from the tribal regions of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, formerly North-West Frontier Province, have been using Dera Ghazi Khan, where the shrine was based, as a route to enter Punjab.

This turmoil comes at a time of growing tensions within the Obama administration over the over the size and pace of the planned pullout of US troops from Afghanistan this summer, with the military seeking to limit a reduction in combat forces and the White House pressing for a withdrawal substantial enough to placate a war-weary electorate. At a time of economic turmoil in the US, the war's cost estimated to reach $120 billion this year is leading to increasing public disenchantment with the war. Attention is shifting to 2012 presidential elections and the political class, including Barack Obama, will be reluctant to challenge public opinion. Nearly two-thirds of Americans, according to latest surveys, no longer find the war in Afghanistan worth fighting.

Obama's failure to take complete ownership of the war that had once described as the necessary one is becoming a big liability. Moreover, he has failed to reconcile the differences among his advisors even as the perception is gaining ground that the war is going nowhere for the NATO forces. Though Obama made it clear that the current war strategy will continue and not be altered, there is a grudging acknowledgment in the US policy-making circles that Obama's surge is not showing any signs of success so far.

Although military officials contend that the surge has enabled US forces to blunt the Taliban in key areas over the past several months, White House officials remain skeptical that those gains will survive without the presence of American troops and without US financial aid.

Obama had approved a 30,000-troop increase sought by the military in 2009 but at the same time he had made it clear that the surge forces would begin returning home by July 2011. The pace of that reduction, however, was ambiguous, with Defence Department officials describing the initial reductions as minor and some of Obama's other advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, saying the pullout would be as rapid as the deployment of the surge troops.

Meanwhile, a major Pentagon task force that has sought to help Afghanistan exploit its mineral wealth and expand private-sector employment is facing a crisis with the resignation of several of its members alarming senior military officials, who view the group's job-creation efforts as an important component of the overall US counterinsurgency mission.

As the US struggles with its Af-Pak policy, India needs to be acutely aware of the implications of the rapidly deteriorating security environment in its neighbourhood. America's diminishing capacity to come to terms with the challenges in Afghanistan will have long-term implications for regional security in South Asia. New Delhi will have to fashion a pro-active foreign policy response that relies less on Washington in crafting an appropriate response to the changing dynamic in Af-Pak.

Whether a government mired in corruption scandals can step up to the plate remains an open question.

Harsh V Pant