An initial assessment of Barack Obama’s move to begin withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan
Barack Obama has delivered on the commitment to begin the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan this year. While the implications of this move will be analysed in the subsequent days, weeks, months and years, let’s take a quick look at the crux of Mr Obama’s speech:
The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies. We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people; and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures – one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.
Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.[WP]
The United States has further reduced its goals in Afghanistan to the most parsimonious: limited to preventing terrorist and other attacks against the United States and its unnamed allies. At the same time, it has shifted the focus more to the East, to Pakistan.
The withdrawal is likely to be stretched over time linked to political developments in Afghanistan. However, even if the withdrawal is precipitous,the United States will retain its offensive strike capabilities—think drones and special forces—in the region. In fact, these might even be scaled up as a counter to the ‘weakness’ created by lowering the number of combat troops in Afghanistan. These capabilities will both provide teeth to US diplomacy as well as allow it to place limits on the military-jihadi complex’s ability to escalate militant violence. The question for New Delhi is whether Washington will define these limits in such a way as to prevent terrorist and militant attacks on India, or will it see the latter as a necessary price to protect itself?
Mr Obama’s calculation might work. He is, though, betting that US drone attacks and special forces operations will be possible and sufficient should Afghanistan’s political dynamic decisively swing towards surrogates of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex or radical Islamists of the al-Qaeda variety. Mr Obama has either accepted or ignored this risk, which informs the thinking of the US armed forces. The question then is: should the tide change towards the Taliban, during the process of withdrawal, will Mr Obama continue with the current course, or review the United States’ options?
What happens to the jihadi militants that are currently being engaged by US forces in Afghanistan? What will they do with their ‘free time’ once they have fewer Western troops to fight against? Demobilisation of radicalised, violent and effectively illiterate men is a challenge that receives less attention than it should. This may yet be the most important factor that undermines the success of Mr Obama’s calculations.
In many ways, transforming Afghanistan from a combat zone to a diplomatic war zone—with negotiations among the United States, the Afghan government, the Pakistani military establishment, Taliban forces and others—could be a positive for India. After all, New Delhi is much more comfortable, and arguably has many more options, in political games than military ones. Yet it is the only player without a strong stick. Also, given the UPA government’s domestic weaknesses, its ability to pursue a determined foreign policy course in Afghanistan is in some doubt.