Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Guest Column: Getting Obama’s Afghan policy back on track
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst. The views expressed in the column are his own).
By C. Uday Bhaskar
The May 12 summit meeting in the White House between visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his host, U.S. President Barack Obama comes against the backdrop of the mercifully aborted May 1 terrorist bombing incident in New York’s Times Square.
From the barrage of news and commentary that floods various media outlets here in Washington DC, it is evident that the Obama Af-Pak policy unveiled with considerable fanfare last year will be in for detailed and contested policy review.
Immediate U.S. interests apart – including the Obama second term, the stakes for the long-term stability of the entire southern Asian region and the troubled Muslim populace in the scattered diaspora ranging from North America to west Europe are immense and complex.
Afghanistan came into global focus with the tragic enormity of September 11, 2001 when it was under the control of the Taliban and the obscurantist, anti-liberal ideology espoused by this group had earlier impacted India’s security interests in the December 1999 aircraft hijacking episode.
The Taliban provided a safe-haven for those elements and non-state entities that were nurturing radicalism and terror derived from a distorted interpretation of Islam that went against the grain of every normative tenet associated with that religion.
Almost 10 years down the road and with billions of dollars and precious human life having been expended, peace and stability in that ravaged land is still elusive.
The U.S.-Afghan relationship remains testy and the natural xenophobia of the Afghan has a historical precedent that goes back to the days of Alexander in the BC period to the more recent travails of the British and Soviet military over the last two centuries.
‘Graveyard of empire’ is a phrase that is often used by detractors to summarize the Obama policy predicament and on the eve of his Washington visit, President Karzai has reminded his U.S. interlocutors that despite the disagreements – some of which were avoidable, “What has kept ustogether is an overriding strategic vision of an Afghanistan whose peace and stability can guarantee the safety of the Afghan and the American peoples.”
Yes, there are many inadequacies in Afghanistan’s institutional capacities and it is an oft ignored truism of low intensity conflict that a state andsociety that have been systematically placed under the trauma of incessant violence and bloodshed will need an equally extended period for re-construction and a return to some modicum of normalcy.
Thus if 1979 when the former USSR occupied Afghanistan is seen as the beginning of the current radicalization and internal turbulence, and 2001 the collective effort to redress the situation – then at the very least it will be the late 2020′s before one can expect any significant improvement in that ill-fated nation and its hapless people.
But regrettably Afghanistan is being thwarted in its nascent attempts to build a basic minimum of state capacity and the safe-havens that nurture the radical non-state groups such as the al-Qaida and the Taliban in its many variants across the border in Pakistan have been an intractable challenge for the Karzai regime since it came to power.
The Kabul-Islamabad relationship has been under intense strain over the kind of sanctuary being provided in Pakistan to such groups and President Karzai made veiled reference to this abiding challenge for U.S. policy when he noted: “We are not yet delivering security to large portions of the country. I have consistently noted the urgency of addressing the problem of sanctuaries, training and other support that terrorists receive beyond Afghanistan’s borders. This problem is far from solved.”
And the problem in Afghanistan whose non-linear manifestations surfaced in New York on May 1 will remain unsolved as long as the challenge is defined as ‘Af-Pak’.
The semantic needs to be re-arranged as Pak-Af with a clear recognition that it is Pakistan that is the driver of the turbulence and mayhem in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the last Obama review of the policy towards Islamabad remains tentative and mistakenly hostage to the short-term US interest in the region.
The Pakistani establishment that thrives on a deep and inflexible anti-India/anti-American agenda has created a virtual reality about how the Pakistani masses should orient themselves in the face of the many threats that engulf that country.
Denial of certain inexorable realities is the central motif and a make-believe simulacrum over a threat to Islam and the Pakistani identity has been carefully crafted.
As the noted Pakistani analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi has perceptively noted in recent days: “Since the early 1980s the state pursued an agenda through education and the mass media to Islamise the state and society. Pakistan’s military and the intelligence agencies continued to patronise a religious hard line and militancy as an instrument of domestic and foreign policy towards Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir.
By September 2001, at least one and a half generations had been socialised into religious orthodoxy and militancy as a desirable mindset and a frame for action. These people have reached the middle level positions in government, the military, and other services.
They may not directly get involved in bomb planting, but they have sympathy for Islamic radicals who engage in violence in the name of Islam.In this way the political discourse of Islamic radicalism and the political right has become integral to the mindset of countless people who tend toview national and international affairs in purely religious terms.” It is this conviction that allows political leaders like the Sharif brothers to align themselves with the Taliban against the USA.
This is a heady cocktail that can only lead to the proliferation of more Faisal Shahzads and hence calls for a more objective counter discourse cum narrative about Islam and Pakistan to be injected into that society.
The muted and shrinking liberal spectrum in Pakistan must be strengthened as part of the courageous Kerry-Lugar provisions. In essence the Obama Af-Pak policy audit needs to take a far more seminal and informed review about Pakistan and the role of the malignant establishment if it is to get the Afghan policy back on track.