Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Guest Column: Getting Obama’s Afghan policy back on track

By Reuters Staff
May 11, 2010


(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.udaybhaskar1

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.


The heady mindset is developed due to denial of promised right of self determination to Kashmiris by Indian establishment. Otherwise nobody in Pakistan would like to have strained relations with India. If Pakistan establishment can forget Indian occupation of princely states viz. Junagadh and Hyderabad Deccan that initially acceded to Pakistan then as to why not they would like to have stormy relationship with India. Kashmir and now stealing of river water are core issues which is needed to be addressed otherwise people out of frustration would do prohibitive acts. Please remember ‘human frustration’ are always behind any prohibitive acts. Nobody understands peaceful struggle. Indians are useful of dealing with Quaid e Azam M A Jinnah but such great people are no more in Pakistan.

Posted by Syed Faisal | Report as abusive

Sayed Faisal: Don’t forget that Pakistan Invaded an undecided Kashmir and prompted the then Maharaja of Kashmir to ask for Indian Help – and this constant harping on the right to self determination is as bogus as the Idea that led to the partition of the sub-continent – The UN mandated plebiscite had a pre-condition that Pakistan never honored – complete withdrawl of invading pakistani forces from Kashmir – as to water and other non-sense issues that you bring up – your own foreign minister has said that India is not stealing any water – so stop being such a tiresome moron.

Posted by George | Report as abusive

Obama’s policy in Afghanistan back on track? Obama never had a policy in Afghanistan. He just sprinkled George Bush’s policy there with a doze of high bravado, and expected the Afghan resistance to fall on its knees and cry uncle. Karzai traveled to Kandahar recently with General McChrystal to gauge the local’s feeling about the oncoming U.S. military takeover of the city from Taliban. He found overwhelming opposition
to the U.S. plan, and was forced to promise to Kandahar’s residents: “If you don’t want foreign forces here, I promise you they won’t come,” on quote. But that is Obama’s plan. Can Karzai scrap it?

Now Karzai is in Washington to do some explaining. But he didn’t come here as a head of state, but as a U.S. viceroy in Afghanistan. Obama was not waiting at the airport to greet him, there was no red carpet, and news reports float that he is in Washington to be reprimanded and apologize for talking freely about Afghan war issues before clearing his speeches with the State Department. Karzai, therefore, is nothing more than what Fellipe Petain of the Vichy Regime was to Germany in France in 1940-1944. A puppet of an foreign occupying force on a visit here to take his orders from Obama, and then go back to implement them – or lose his job, which is protected and funded by the U.S.

But in Afghanistan, Karzai’s “reconciliation” with the Taliban is faltering because the U.S. opposes his
sharing of control with the Taliban, who, in turn, insist the U.S. “must get out!” The U.S. prefers “re-integration, which means “surrender of the Taliban”, and then a systematic clean up of anti-U.S. elements in Afghanistan to prevent a relapse. That is what the Soviet Union did with the installation to power of Babrak Karmal in 1979, whose secret police under Mohammad Najinullah wiped out all anti-Soviet elements – including Hafizulla Amin, a high ranking communist competitor of Karmal. Najibulla became president with Soviet support, but his regime didn’t last, and the Taliban hang him publicly in kabul.

Would the Taliban fall into “re-integration” with Karzai’s U.S. controlled regime, and submit to the same fate with those that cooperated with Karma’s regime? Only naive people would believe that, but Washington has many in the U.S. government bureaucracy. I predict, that when the war in Afghanistan is over,
there will be no Babrak Karmal-like pro-U.S. regime in Kabul. The Greek historian Herodotus once had a prophecy: “No foreign occupying power can retain control of a country forever against a hostile occupied population.” That is what is happening in Afghanistan today, but Obama is terrified that unless he finds a face-saving way out of Afghanistan’s war swamp, he may have to wave “adios” to his 2012 reelection bid.
And of course that means thousands more of war dead, and more massive destruction in Afghanistan, just to
secure his re-election. The adage “power corrupts” is the only reason the bloody war in Afghanistan is still
going on. Nikos Retsos, retired professor

Posted by Nikos Retsos | Report as abusive

Radicalisation of Pakistan is still taking place and no one is turning off the supply. If anything, the Madrassas are getting stronger and new ones are still opening. The present generation is going to run the nation for another 30-40 years and the new ones will take over. This is not good news. If any Indian or Pakistani believes that Kashmir is the root cause of the conflict in Indo-Pak equation then someone needs to explain why all the Muslim nations from Morocco to Pakistan have disputes with their neighbous. After all USA, UK, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Thailand, Philipines, China etc do not have a Kashmir Problem! I refuse to live in the La La land of giving Kashmir to settle the dispute with Pakistan.
As for the water problem of Pakistan, India needs to do a proper job of informing the world of the facts. Pakistanis are already beginning to believe that their problems of shortage of water and energy are of India’s making. It is their own incompetence because they are not harnessing the water. Water will be the weapon in the hands of India to deal with Pakistan because they are already terribly short of water and it is not long before the masses will rise up violently against their own rulers.

Posted by Surinder Puri | Report as abusive

Although the majority of the people living in Pakistan are peace loving but engagement of a hand full of people in terrorism related acts has put a bad name on our reputation. It is important for us to adopt a more liberal approach towards our relationships with the rest of the world in order to promote peace and harmony.

Posted by Sher Zaman | Report as abusive

Pakistan is a nation of diversified people but not extremist. It is just a handful stupid gang who went out of their limits and destroyed the image of the whole nation.

Posted by Rashid Saleem | Report as abusive


Prof. Nikos, firstly, Obama was handed a pile of mess on his first day on the job, namely 2 wars and a crumbling economy. In all fairness, I think Obama has handled the perpetual catch-22′s that he has been given, pretty darn well. His options are very limited and his margins to operate are very narrow. All of this quagmire is the doing of the Bush Era, poor Obama has find a way to somehow start a clean slate with all of these perpetual wars and economic vampirism that has been tossed his way, first day into office. Obama has not really even begun to implement his own policies, his administration is so burdened trying to rectify the follies and social welfare for the rich, brought about by the last administration, who started those wars to make the rich richer and make the banks richer. Not Obama’s fault. Point the finger back at the predecessors.

@Surinder Puri,

True, the water shortages are the doing of the those who ran Pakistan. While they were busy making weapons, nukes and training terrorists to use in Afghanistan using IMF and beggar bowl money, they did not care for their average citizen who needs a job, an education, standard of life, let alone the bare necessities of life, like food and water. The PA and their puppet politicians shamefully and selfishly squandered the futures of their fellow Pakistani’s to keep their grip on power, using India as a fictitious enemy.

Using India, Israel and America as an enemy is not going to quench the thirst and fill the bellies of 170 million Pakistani’s.

One wonders if sense will ever come to Pakistani’s once they are thirsty and hungry and look for all the answers to all of their problems within their own borders. The answers and those who are the cause of ruin in their lives are right under their noses, on T.V. and Radio every day.

Posted by Globalwatcher | Report as abusive

Syed Faisal,

Typical Pakistani response. It can be summed up such:

“It’s all India’s fault.”

Or if you want to quote Shaggy:

“It wasn’t me!”

Is there anything Pakistanis will actually take responsibility for? They’ve mistreated minorities well beyond anything in India (how easily they forget that little business of genocide against the minorities of East Pakistan) and mistreat their own Kashmiris, but they’ll go on and on to no end about Indian Kashmir. They’ll mismanage their water stocks and then blame India for not giving them enough. They’ll take tons of foreign aid from the West but then complain when the West insists that this money goes towards humanitarian efforts and to combat terrorism as opposed to fueling the sub-continental arms race.

This is Pakistan. It’s the national equivalent of a trouble-making welfare bum. It’s the equivalent of that neighbour on the dole who does nothing, collects a government cheque, then whines and complains about the help you do provide and ever so often tries to rob his hard-working older sibling next door.

Yet, Obama is focused on Afghanistan. If he wants to fix Afghanistan, he’s gotta start with Pakistan. When Pakistani society creates individuals like Faizal Shahzad, who despite being in the US for 10 years, got radicalized, you know that something is very rotten in Islamabad.

Posted by LBK | Report as abusive

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