Bottomline | India’s Wild West

Time for President Obama to put Pakistan Army Chief on notice on bin Laden

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

New Delhi should start worrying about the war in Afghanistan. It is unwinnable because President Barack Obama’s mind is not into fighting this war. A war of this kind needs a fine balance between political objectives and military aims with the Commander-in-Chief constantly monitoring the progress; he instead permitted politics to overwhelm military matters. Why else would he have allowed so many political leaders to consistently breathe down General Stanley McChrystal’s neck? What was the need for him to announce withdrawal timetable from Afghanistan even before contact was made with the enemy? And why would he get the centre of gravity of the war incorrect? To understand the latter, he needs to go to the beginning. US launched the war in Afghanistan after 9/11 with President Bush saying that he wanted Osama bin Laden ‘dead or alive.’ Period.

If the Taliban leadership had handed over Laden or had asked him to leave their country, the US forces may not have entered Afghanistan. Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf tried counselling the Taliban leadership to accept the US’ demand; if Laden was hiding in Pakistan, Musharraf may have done the needful to avoid US toppling the Taliban regime. But Mullah Omar, the Taliban boss had his own compulsions for not compromising on Laden; he would have lost credibility with fellow Pushtuns (who pride themselves on protecting guests) on both sides of the Durand line, and may have been killed by own supporters.

Now, the CIA director, Leon Panetta says that Laden is hiding in Pakistan tribal areas, and it makes sense. It is time for Obama to put Pakistan Army Chief, General Pervez Kayani on notice: either he delivers Laden to the US or else…

Remember the threat US had issued to Musharraf: either Pakistan join the war on terror or they could be bombed to the stone-age. With Laden out of the way, and Mullah Omar back as the ruler of Afghanistan, the latter would transform into state player from a non-state player (terrorist) and will have little incentive for terrorism on US homeland. Pakistan, in this scenario, would be the loser with scant influence over the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The US could also consider informal or formal negotiations with the Taliban leadership to confer semblance of credibility on the regime. This would be the win-win situation for the US, Mullah Omar (who would not be blamed for Laden’s death), Nato and maybe India.

At present, Pakistan is winning the war at the cost of Obama’s credibility. Whatever Obama’s surge of forces and General David Petraeus’ leadership may do, it definitely cannot win this war; the definition of winning the war is that hard-core Taliban be eliminated, soft Taliban sever ties with Laden, lay down arms, abide by the Afghanistan constitution, co-opt regional warlords, hopefully all under President Hamid Karzai’s leadership. Obama wants all this to happen well before the next US presidential elections. Realising the nonsensical US approach, Karzai is now leaning on Kayani and his side-kick ISI chief, Lt General Shuja Pasha to bail him out. Kayani, like his predecessor, is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, biding time till the US exit to bring together a Pushtun leadership in Afghanistan with whom he can do business. More than Kayani, China will be pleased to have a foothold in the post-US Afghanistan through proxy Pakistan to then exploit the newly-discovered mineral wealth there.

Where does this leave India? We need to understand our stakes in Afghanistan. Unlike what our experts say, Pakistan no longer needs Afghanistan for strategic-depth against India. Once Pakistan got nuclear weapons, it ensured that the Indian Army, even with capabilities, would not make deep ingress inside Pakistan territories for them to move their war-fighting assets into Afghanistan space. Today, GHQ Rawalpindi needs a friendly regime in Afghanistan for four others reasons: for peace along the Durand Line, for passage rights through Afghanistan into Central Asian countries, to help increase Chinese influence in Afghanistan, and space outside Pakistan for additional terrorist training camps against India.

An appreciation would inform us that our stakes were not high, but we got carried away by the US’ presence and invested over USD 1.3 billion in Karzai’s Afghanistan. Now we have to protect our assets in Afghanistan. So we are doing five things: we are telling the US to stay the course in Afghanistan, we are seeking to revive the defunct Northern Alliance (an impossible task after the death of Ahmed Shah Masood) by talking with Iran and Russia, we are testing waters with various warlords in Afghanistan, we are making contacts with Pushtun elders who know the Taliban, and for the worst case scenario, we are assembling forces for emergency requirement in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network (Afghan Taliban) which is aligned with the ISI has repeatedly targeted our assets there. There are indications that more Indian Paramilitary forces will soon be sent to Afghanistan for protection of our interests, and commando units (of army) will be kept on stand-by to be despatched at short notice. This is all fine till Karzai remains the ruler in Kabul. What happens when he gets ousted by Kayani-Mullah Omar combine, which given Obama’s incorrect reading of the war in Afghanistan, seems to be the end-game?


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