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Af-Pak Plan: Responding to Holbrooke’s Diplomacy

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • April 13, 2009

    Much as the text of Obama’s new ‘Af-Pak’ plan echoes India’s traditional concerns, it may turn out to be contrary to India’s interest with unseen implications in the longer term. Obama’s outlined strategy has been described as a ‘bold bid’ ‘bottom-up’ ‘comprehensive’ ‘pragmatic’ and even a ‘game changer’ approach. Though it aims to ‘disrupt, dismantle and defeat’ al-Qaida hiding in Pakistani safe havens it is primarily meant to rescue recalcitrant Pakistan, which, according to US security officials and experts, is the world’s most dangerous place and could collapse as soon as in six months. The plan suggests that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is intricately linked and the mess in Pakistan needs to be sorted out first. Obama has pledged an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan but doled out a ‘down-payment’ of $2.8 billion military and $7.5 billion in civilian aid to Pakistan to kick-start the new venture.

    While US officials claimed that Islamic extremism posed an ‘existential threat’ to the nuclear armed-Pakistani state, they also gave reasons to believe that Pakistan needed the Taliban to deter the threat posed by India. While US interlocutors try to remove the India threat from the Pakistani psyche, Islamabad seems to be winning the case for a no-strings attached support with swansongs about Indian presence in Afghanistan and military build up along the Kashmir front. Islamabad is already making a case that US drone attacks imperil the Pakistani state and are working to the advantage of the extremists. They say that the Taliban is shifting the war to urban areas.

    It may be so that Pakistan is really facing the moment of truth – its state remains paralyzed and its flawed existence is becoming untenable in the face of centrifugal forces from Pakistan and centripetal forces from India. Here, its American friends can only delay but not prevent the impending withering away of Pakistan.

    Holbrooke said India’s role is ‘critical’ for the success of the US venture as Baitullah Mehsud posed a danger to Pakistan, India and the US. Should India allow itself to jump into the Af-Pak tangle?

    It would be hard to disagree with Holbrooke’s views as they are soothing to Indian ears, but India needs to be careful not to fall into the bait. Though the new doctrine is lauded by the West with a chance of succeeding it appears hidebound and bound to wilt on several grounds. Firstly, it is like the same wine in a new bottle, relying heavily on seeking Pakistan-centric answers to deal with the flashpoint. This means that the US continues to rely on toxic Pakistani military and political institutions that have taken the world community for a ride all these years by playing a double-game in the war against terror. By peddling the good versus bad Taliban, the policy hinges on Pakistan (Islamic) rather than on Afghanistan (nationalist) to deal with the problem – this is bound to fail.

    Secondly, it would be a fallacy to believe that the ISI would ever sever ties with the Taliban network nurtured as strategic assets for decades, though US officials have been selectively divulging the details of broader array of the Taliban movement especially Hekmatyar, Haqqani and Commander Nazir (sp) networks being coordinated by operatives of the shadowy S Wing of ISI. A new drama is being played out wherein ISI chief boycotted a recent Holbrooke-Mullen meeting in protest against their allegations about ISI’s linkages with Taliban. But, Pakistanis will continue to offer a nuanced depiction of different forms of Taliban and the US will struggle to understand the complex shifting alliances and ties that bind the ISI with the Taliban. Islamabad’s inability or unwillingness to confront the Taliban is visible from its flip-flop approach to the peace deal with the Mullahs in Swat which is on the verge of collapse.

    Thirdly and underlying the new approach is to somehow tug Kashmir onto the Af-Pak theatre in the guise of “constructive diplomacy” to reduce India-Pakistan standoff. While the US is engaged in diplomacy – suggesting a secure India should give concessions to a neurotic Pakistan – Pakistani gamesmanship displays a new covertly trick of pushing jihadis across the LoC as indicated by the recent spurt of infiltration in J&K to bolster Kashmir as the key issue.

    It is unlikely that US intentions are as benign as seeking stability in Afghanistan. Only naifs would believe that the idea is for the mighty US and the combined NATO forces to run after a bunch of medieval style Taliban fighters in the rugged Afghan mountains. Clearly then, the issue is more about geopolitics and Afghanistan surely figures more important than Iraq in American minds for reshaping the international order beyond the traditional European frontiers for meeting the future strategic challenges of China, India, Iran and Russia. There is, of course, direct American interest in arresting the collapse of the Pakistan state or at least to prevent its nuclear weapons falling into the al-Qaida’s hand. Also if the new Afghan operation is successful, it would become a lot more easier to wrench energy rich Central Asia away from Russian and Chinese control.

    The issue, therefore, is less military and more political. But, in an Asian Muslim environment, it would be difficult not to view foreign presence as occupation, especially when Afghanistan is vividly known for this. The Taliban has already termed the offer a ‘lunatic idea’ as they refortify alliances across both sides of the frontier to repel the American influx. Disturbingly, the plan may seek to replace the existing internationally legitimized regime in Kabul with an illegitimate US-Pakistan puppet – making Afghanistan a virtual pawn in the US gameplan.

    Such a heavily drawn political game may face resistance from NATO itself. The Europeans –including Germany - are loath to commit more troops to Afghanistan despite Obama’s recent appeal. This would make the whole operation more like an American fight. Regional players are yet to respond to what so far appears to be a war script fit for a Hollywood production. Russia’s relations with the US are yet to make a drastic shift for a convergence of interest in Afghanistan, though Moscow has shown keenness to address the Afghan imbroglio through the SCO framework. How to bring Iran on board? It would take a lot to break the frosty Iran-US relations. Iran too is opposed to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. China’s support is vital, but Beijing would be unwilling to engage overtly in the new venture. It would rather rely on the existing strategic nexus with Pakistan for a variety of reasons than Afghanistan alone. Moreover, Beijing would instead forge direct rapport with Pakistan’s tribal provinces in pursuit of its strategic goals. The CCP’s signing of an agreement with Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami and now with the local government of NWFP are points in this regard.

    The new plan is being sold as an important goal for New Delhi to achieve. There is considerable political will being shown by the new US administration to do something to end the Af-Pak mess. Obama’s promise not provide any blank cheque or seeking stringent accountability from Pakistan may gladden Indian hearts, but fresh attempts at refurbishing Pakistani security with training, equipment and weapons should cause worry for India.

    India does have a stake in Afghanistan and even may share the same goal as America, but there is little to coordinate between the two as long as the US and Pakistan share deep interest in Afghanistan. Pakistan losing the game is glaring, but India can’t be rejoicing about it. India must not get paranoid, but must not also be complacent about the Taliban surge. Holbrooke’s proposal requires effective and deliberated Indian response while laying out a set of our own preconditions.