Pax Indica: Obama and the “K” word

Mubarack O!

Barack Obama has come a long way over Kashmir from his interview to TIME’s Joe Klein to his press conference with Manmohan Singh in New Delhi yesterday. This is the topic of today’s Pax Indica column:

Excerpt:

In his informative little book (“The South Asia Story: The first sixty years of US relations with India and Pakistan”, Sage Publications) Harold Gould writes that in addition to the underlying geopolitics, the personalities, levels of awareness and intellectual capacities of US presidents determined their policy positions over Kashmir. The hopes Mr Obama raised in Islamabad, in parts of the Kashmir Valley and indeed in Washington, were not unfounded. So it will be interesting to know what caused him to change his position: was it merely an acknowledgement of the limits of US influence or does he now have a better appreciation of the subject two years after coming to office?

Mr Obama’s thinking on the Kashmir issue matters, because if he sticks to his dogmatic insistence on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the middle of next year, he will face internal pressures to buy a face-saving exit from the war. Unless there is a dramatic change on the ground, the United States depends upon the Pakistani military-jihadi complex to prevent a bloodbath once US troops leave.

General Ashfaq Kayani will not oblige without extracting a price. It’s hard to say what Pakistan won’t ask for. But its top three demands are likely to include: the handing over of the keys to Kabul to its Taliban proxies; legitimacy for its nuclear weapons in the form of a nuclear deal; and, of course, a “settlement of the Kashmir issue”. [Yahoo!]

Related Post: Mubarack O?

Hanging around the Y-junction

The United States can only delay making the real strategic decision

It was interesting to see, towards the end of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, members of the Obama administration realise that the United States is in the same place today as it was in early 2009. Recent events validate that assessment. Frustrated with the Pakistani army’s refusal to shut down taliban safe havens, the US-led forces attacked across the border killing Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani military retaliated by shutting down the supply route, letting taliban militants destroy some trucks and show that it has the ability to inflict some pain. This was roughly the state of affairs when Barack Obama took over as president.

This is exactly what we had argued:

Sooner or later, the Obama administration will come to realise that it has no way to make the Pakistani military establishment seriously fight and defeat the jihadi groups, which includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda and outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. When that moment comes, Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat. [Operation Markarap]

What now? It is unlikely that President Obama would choose “direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex” just yet. The race to find options short of that is almost certainly on, and a “throw them a bone” alternative will be sought. There are three possible bones. First, to accept a pro-Pakistani political dispensation in Afghanistan. Second, to accept the “legitimacy of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”. Third, to press India to compromise on Kashmir.

The first option doesn’t appeal to General Ashfaq Kayani at this stage because he believes he can get there without the United States. The second option is a status symbol they can do without, not least because China continues to support the expansion of the Pakistani arsenal. The third option might just do the trick, because which Pakistani general is immune to the potential glory of being the one who won Kashmir?

So expect Washington to exert pressure on India over Kashmir. Expect pressure to restart the composite dialogue and suchlike. It’ll take the Obama administration a year or so to realise that this is a dead-end. General Kayani will probably realise it a little before Washington does. And then what?

Well, we told you already. Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat.

Post-deluge Pakistan

An assessment

At the risk of being entirely wrong, here is an assessment of the political implications of floods in Pakistan.

1. Fears of Pakistan ending up as a “failed state with nuclear weapons” are overblown. The disaster is unprecedented and the response understandably inadequate but it does not set off an explosive dynamic along political faultlines.

2. Political changes are unlikely. The disaster has further cemented the army’s popularity, allowing it to claim credit for the government’s successes (for it is a part of the government) but avoid the blame for the failures (which accrue to the civilian political leadership). Given the immense challenge of rehabilitation and reconstruction that lies ahead, General Ashfaq Kayani would have to be a conceited fool–which so far at least, he has shown no signs of being–to want to countenance a change in the political set-up. A weak, powerless and unpopular President Asif Zardari is just what he needs. Nawaz Sharif’s hopes to become the prime minister are unlikely to fructify before the next election because he is popular, has political weight and could challenge General Kayani’s hold on power.

3. Pakistan will not only receive debt waivers but also see a relaxation of conditions relating to financial assistance. While this will come as a relief for the government and the elite, it will weaken the endogenous factors that will aid recovery by delaying the implementation of important macro-economic reforms. It will also ensure the perpetuation of the current political setup because debt waivers and unconditional assistance will come much easier if there’s a facade of a democratic government. Furthermore, given that a significant part of the international assistance will be routed through international agencies and NGOs, it will not strengthen the Pakistani government’s civilian capacity.

4. Jihadi militant organisations will become more powerful but will not be allowed to increase their political profiles. This disaster, like the 2005 earthquake, is being used by organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to bolster their credentials as a providers of social services. However, to the extent that the Pakistani government will be dependent on international assistance–and it will become more so in the immediate future—the military establishment will not allow such organisations to make a direct play for power. Let’s not forget that the LeT is a surrogate of the Pakistani military establishment, which, if it wants to, can directly seize power in a coup.

5. The military establishment will use the disaster as an alibi for downgrading its war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan in North Waziristan and elsewhere. Engaging in disaster relief will draw on military resources from the battle against the taliban, but there are deeper reasons for the army’s unwillingness to sustain battle against them. How quickly and to what extent it will resume the fight depends almost entirely on how much the United States can coerce the army.

6. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan will not be interrupted. The US will find it difficult in the coming months to press the Pakistan army to cooperate in counter-insurgency operations because of the alibi. The direction of the war in Afghanistan will therefore depend on the Obama administration’s political will and determination.

7. Pakistan’s domestic stability is set to worsen. In the short-term, resettlement of internally displaced persons will complicate the ethnic and sectarian tensions in cities like Karachi, Hyderabad and Quetta. While this is likely to result in greater violence, it is unlikely to lead to collapse of the state. Instability will place an economic cost on Pakistan, damaging endogenous factors that can aid recovery.

8. The insurgency in Balochistan is likely to be contained. To the extent that the army is willing to use brute force and targeted killings to keep the lid on the conflict, and to the extent that the Baloch lack outright political support internationally, the prospects of secession are dim.

9. While radioactivity-leakage risks are low there is some risk to the security of nuclear plants, equipment and material. Such facilities are likely to have been built to withstand such contingencies. However, in the confusion that accompanies such events, there is a higher chance that physical security of nuclear installations can be breached. So far, there are no media reports flood waters affecting nuclear installations.

10.Disaster relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation will be decently funded. Despite the slow start in fundraising, despite concerns over aid distribution, the international community is unlikely to ignore humanitarian needs during the relief phase. However, it is unclear if the Pakistani government has the inclination and capacity to use the funds and goodwill to sustain its efforts beyond the short-term relief phase into the medium-term rehabilitation & reconstruction phase.

11. The US will make only small gains in popularity despite playing a leading role in relief and reconstruction. China and Saudi Arabia are likely to make disproportionately large gains. (In the short-term though, the situation is likely to be the opposite, because the narrative will be factual.)

Tailpiece: Pakistani officials and commentators would do well to avoid using the “unless the world gives money Pakistan will become a nuclear-armed failed state” bogey as it has been used so many times by so many people that it reeks of a shakedown. The humanitarian tragedy is serious enough a reason for well-meaning people and governments around the world to help.

Obama wasn’t there. Kayani was.

Despite the Wikileaks documents, US policy on Pakistan is unlikely to change

The immediate response by President Barack Obama’s media managers to the release of thousands of war logs has been to blame the Bush administration. “The period of time covered in these documents (January 2004-December 2009)” the White House says “is before the President announced his new strategy. Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy.” As the latest release—and perhaps a more damning future one—by Wikileaks works its way through the US political system, Mr Obama will have to do a lot better than that. (Yes, yes, another speech full of high rhetoric is on the cards.)

However as my INI colleague pointed out this morning, that period includes General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s entire tenure as ISI chief. As Tunku Varadarajan writes in the Daily Beast

Much of the latest involvement in the Afghan insurgency by the ISI—Pakistan’s military intelligence—happened on Gen. Kayani’s watch, when he was the head of the ISI. That very same man, Kayani, whose agency lovingly breastfed the Taliban, and who was later elevated to chief of army staff, has just been granted a three-year extension by Pakistan’s civilian government. It boggles the mind that this duplicitous underminer of the U.S. war effort is now General David Petraeus’ direct interlocutor. Petraeus will need to navigate a labyrinth of misinformation and half-truths, accompanied by typically unctuous protestations that Pakistan is doing everything it can to help us in the war against al Qaeda. [Daily Beast]

This is not really news. But now that the ISI’s skulduggery has the international media’s attention, it will be much harder for US officials to pretend that Gen Kayani smells of roses. Here’s something to think about—what if Wikileaks had delivered their scoop before his term was extended? Here’s something else to think about—there was time until November this year to announce the extension of his term.

Painted buses and $300m of Pakistan’s ‘own money’

Another terrible report by Emily Wax

It is one thing to say that “Pakistan is pouring $300 million into Afghanistan”. It is entirely another to say that “Pakistan is pouring $300 million of its own money“. It is absurd to talk about Pakistan’s own money when it is bankrolled by the United States and the international community. Even if it’s elite didn’t stow away their cash in Dubai, London and other places, and actually paid their taxes and power bills, it is absurd to talk about $300 million of Pakistan’s own money as long as it is receiving that much or more in foreign aid.

Money is fungible. So the $300 million is quite likely to be some poor American taxpayers’ hard-earned money used to paint a few buses in the colours of the Pakistani flag. Not all of it, mind you, and quite possibly not even the majority of it, unless you happen to believe—like Barack Obama—that there is no corruption east of the Durand line.

Yet the sheer folly of the use of the phrase “Pakistan’s own money” is relatively mild compared to the overall message today’s report in the Washington Post seeks to convey. That message goes somewhat like this: India’s development assistance (mind you, not military presence or those ‘consulates’) “is causing new security and diplomatic problems” for US officials, because Washington “fears upsetting the delicate balance in its relations with Islamabad”. Pakistan is responding—apart from the case of providing some buses emblazoned with its flags—by killing Indian development workers. The unstated, but obvious, implication is that it is India that is causing problems for the United States in Afghanistan.

The Post‘s Emily Wax outdoes herself. Yes, this is the same person who asserted that the demands made on television by the ‘gunmen’ who carried out the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai reflected their real agenda; and the same person who was surprised to find that Indians do not follow Mahatma Gandhi’s dress code.

Strangely enough, other than those US officials and the Pakistani diplomat, the Afghan blokes interviewed only had nice things to say about India’s role. Like Sayed Arif, a young Afghan electrical engineer. “We very much want the Indians here,” Arif said, looking out at the power lines that India brought to his country. “That much in Afghanistan we are sure of.”

If US officials believe that what ordinary Afghans want in their own country is a problem, what it really means is that the US officials are the problem. Unless Ms Wax was attempting a satirical critique of US policy in Afghanistan, she has completely missed the plot.

Zabiullah talk, Taliban walk

The Taliban’s actions signal a different message from their words

Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, has been dressed up to sound like a realist. “It’s possible for the Taliban and India to reconcile with each other” he told his interviewer, “(our) complaint is that India backed the (Northern Alliance) and is now supporting the Karzai government.” He’d like you to believe that it’s all a misunderstanding because “unlike the Lashkar which is focused on Jammu and Kashmir, the Afghan Taliban concentrate on Afghanistan. (Taliban) have never taken part in any attack in India, nor do we attack anyone at Pakistan’s behest.”

Given that everyone thinks it is that stage of the game where they should be seen talking to their adversaries, Mr Mujahid can be forgiven for self-serving lapses of memory. But Mullah Omar’s Taliban are joined at the hip with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). The HuM and its derivative organisations have been engaged in fighting Pakistan’s proxy war against India since the early 1990s. (Speaking of which, whatever happened to Fazlur Rehman Khalil?) When President Clinton ordered missile strikes on training camps in Afghanistan on August 20, 1998, among those killed were members of not only the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen but also the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen. [See B Raman’s 1998 assessment] So Mr Mujahid is not technically not lying. He’s just taking enormous liberties with the truth.

And we are not even talking about the Taliban’s role in the IC-814 episode. As if giving free passage to terrorist hijackers somehow absolves the Mullah Omar of complicity in the affair.

India must reach out to various groups and factions in Afghanistan. But a lot of options will have to be exhausted, and then some, before trying to sup with Mullah Omar’s outfit. If the Taliban were so keen to engage India, attacking Indian officials in Kabul would be exactly the opposite of what they would do. There’s not only a big gulf between history and Mr Mujahid’s telling of it. There is a huge one between his words and the Taliban’s deeds. Believing in the Taliban’s bonafides is not the stuff of imaginative diplomacy. It is a recipe for delusional diplomacy.

The absurdity of scolding Karzai about corruption

Barack Obama’s appalling habit of kicking his allies

So he flew 13 hours non-stop to Kabul to personally scold his host about not doing enough to tackle corruption in Afghanistan.

You will be forgiven for thinking that Barack Obama’s host, Hamid Karzai, didn’t have to worry about taliban types conducting brazen urban warfare right in the middle of Kabul city, or managing a tenuous web of relationships with warlords aligned against the Taliban. And you don’t have to condone corruption to understand that in a near-anarchic war-zone, with a barely visible state apparatus, the use of term ‘corruption’ itself is debatable. The fight in Afghanistan is about putting in place a state where it would make sense to use the word ‘corruption’ in the same manner as you would in Sweden or California, but for that to happen, one side—the desirable side—must prevail over the other, undesirable side. Until that time, it’s absurd to talk about anti-corruption.

What makes it worse is that President Obama, in the amateurish manner that has become his hallmark—witness the Netanyahu episode—chose to publicly undermine the credibility of the one person whose legitimacy is critical for the success of the US enterprise in Afghanistan. Lectures on tackling corruption need not have been released to the international media. Perhaps Mr Obama was playing to his home crowd. But then, it’s pretty easy to score points by kicking your ally in the groin. Pashtuns—and not just Mr Karzai—have long memories.

Mr Obama’s grandstanding is all the more ironic because, despite providing the funds, the United States is primarily responsible for the weakness of the Afghan government. By refusing to route funds through the Afghan government, not only did the Washington deprive the local government of capacity, it deprived it of legitimacy as well.

There is little on practical grounds to suggest that corruption is big enough an issue for Mr Obama to chastise Mr Karzai so publicly. What about principle, then? Well, if it is principle, it seems to be a very geography-specific type, constrained by the Durand Line. All that aid to Pakistan and no lectures on corruption at all? If Hamed Wardak’s NCL Holdings transports US military containers, so does Pakistani army’s NLC. If NCL finances shady types to ensure that the trucks reach their destination, so does the NLC. [See this post on how the racket works from Karachi to Khyber] Yet Mr Obama has not let it be known that he brought up the issue of corruption with President Asif Ali Zardari or General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.

It is no secret that there is no love lost between Mr Obama and Mr Karzai (and there is none between Richard Holbrooke and Mr Karzai). But allowing personal chemistry to cloud an important relationship is a sign of political immaturity. Perhaps Mr Obama has decided that Mr Karzai is irrelevant to US policy in Afghanistan. If so, that would be an expensive mistake.

Sense in Washington

…but outside the corridors of power

Ashley J Tellis’s testimony before the US House of Representatives subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia is one of the most clear-headed assessments in Washington.

The only lasting solution to this danger is to press Pakistan to target groups such as LeT conclusively. Many in the United States imagine that the fix actually lies in pressing India to make peace with Pakistan; such an outcome would eliminate the Pakistani military’s incentives to support a sub- conventional conflict against New Delhi—or so the theory goes. There is no doubt that a lasting reconciliation between India and Pakistan would be fundamentally in the interests of both countries— and of the United States. To that degree, Washington should certainly use its influence with both India and Pakistan to encourage the dialogue that leads to a resolution of all outstanding disputes, including the vexed problem of Kashmir. But, unfortunately for those who advocate pressing India, the impediments to a lasting peace in South Asia do not emanate from New Delhi. Rather, they are incubated in Islamabad, or to be more precise, in Rawalpindi.

So long as the Pakistani Army and the security establishment more generally conclude that their private interests (and their conception of the national interest) are undermined by a permanent reconciliation between India and Pakistan, they will not rid themselves of the terrorist groups they have begotten and which serve their purposes—irrespective of what New Delhi or Kabul or Washington may desire. This fact ought to be understood clearly by the Obama administration. Once it is, it may push the United States to either compel Pakistan to initiate action against LeT or hold Pakistan responsible for the actions of its proxies. If these efforts do not bear fruit, the United States will have to contemplate unilateral actions (or cooperative actions with other allies) to neutralize the most dangerous of the terrorist groups now resident in Pakistan. Doing so may be increasingly necessary not simply to prevent a future Indo-Pakistani crisis, but more importantly to protect the United States, its citizens, its interests, and its allies. [Tellis/US House of Representatives (pdf)]

Another sound assessment comes from Fareed Zakaria:

Pakistan’s military retains its obsession with India — how else to justify a vast budget in a poor nation? It has still not acted seriously against any of the major militant groups active against Afghanistan, India or the United States. The Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani group, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Lashkar-e-Taiba and many smaller groups operate with impunity in Pakistan. But the Pakistani military is doing more than it has before, and that counts as success in the world of foreign policy.

Such success will endure only if the Obama administration keeps at it. Some believe that Pakistan has changed its basic strategy and now understands that it should cut ties to these groups altogether. Strangely, this naive view is held by the U.S. military, whose top brass have spent so many hours with their counterparts in Islamabad that they’ve gone native. It’s up to Obama and his team to remind the generals that pressing Pakistan is a lot like running on a treadmill. If you stop, you move backward — and most likely fall down. [WP]

The endgame is nigh

General Kayani’s moves suggest that he sees the final lap

President Barack Obama gave his Af-Pak speech at West Point on December 1st, 2009 where he announced his intention “to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani signaled his policy by the end that month when a suicide bomber attacked a CIA facility at Khost.

Mr Obama’s speech might have triggered the Pakistani military-jihadi complex into implementing its endgame strategy. Pakistani actions over the last three months suggest that it is both attempting to hasten the US exit from Afghanistan and neutralising the other regional actors—Iran and India—which might oppose a pro-Pakistan post-US arrangement in Kabul. From the attack on the CIA at Khost; to the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi; to the terrorist attack at German Bakery in Pune; to the raid on Kabul city centre; to the rendition of Abdolmalek Rigi to Iran; and most recently, the attack on Indian officials at Kabul, General Kayani & Co have executed their moves masterfully.

Mullah Baradar was not only a ‘moderate’ among the Quetta Shura Taliban, but also actually negotiating with the United States and the Karzai government, against the wishes of the ISI. ‘Capturing’ him not only allowed Pakistan to undermine the US-Afghan political initiative but also allowed General Kayani to be seen as arresting a ‘high-ranking Taliban leader’. This was a brilliant move—Washington had to praise Pakistan even after receiving a kick below the belt. It was, nevertheless, a significant setback for independent US political efforts in Afghanistan. It meant that the United States relies a little more on Pakistan to act as the, well, interlocutor with the Taliban.

Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of a Iranian-Baloch-Sunni terrorist organisation called Jundallah, was almost certainly a CIA asset. The Iranian government has accused him of both being a US agent and of having links with al-Qaeda. Both these charges are perhaps true—contradictory as they might seem. The ISI allowed him to operate from Pakistani territory, for the CIA, against Iran for several years. But after India, Iran and Russia—whose interests were ignored at the London conference on the future of Afghanistan—started coming together, the ISI played the CIA out and handed him over to Iran. The United States can’t complain too loudly, after all, like Mullah Baradar, hasn’t Pakistan just acted against a terrorist with links to al-Qaeda?

(There was the little issue of how to hand Rigi over without setting a precedent that New Delhi might exploit—so an elaborate drama became necessary)

With Iran it was mollification. With India it is aggression. The attack on Indian officials in Kabul is intended to scare India out of Afghanistan. Even as the Pakistani military-jihadi complex seeks to hasten US military withdrawal, it is working towards installing its proxies into the corridors of power in Kabul. It will allow President Karzai to remain in office just long enough to provide a political cover for the United States—but before long, a pro-Pakistan regime will take his place.

Is General Kayani overplaying his hand? Maybe. But bringing the situation to a head before 2011 works to Pakistan’s advantage.

Will the United States watch silently as the Pakistani military-jihadi complex destroys its assets and—brazenly, if cleverly—frustrates its designs? Will the vaunted COIN campaign work fast enough? Will the United States intensify its covert war inside Pakistan to counter General Kayani’s moves? Let’s see.

Why I support official talks with Pakistan

Talks will call the bluffs in Rawalpindi, Islamabad & Washington

The sudden and unexplained manner in which the UPA government offered to resume talks with Pakistan has injected a lot of confusion in the public discourse. The confusion—and the political & strategic costs arising from it—must be blamed on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A move as significant as the restart of official bilateral discussions should have been properly explained to the public by the prime minister. Dr Singh remains silent, as usual, leading a thousand blind men and women to describe the elephant as they sense it. What follows, therefore, is the account of Blind Man of Hindoostan #1001.

Talking to the Pakistani government is unlikely to achieve any substantial progress in bilateral relations. The Zardari-Gilani government is a joke. The military-jihadi complex under General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani does not perceive any accommodation with India as being in its interests. The Pakistani economy and society itself is in a tailspin, perhaps even a terminal decline. Even if India could find a party on the other side of the border with sufficient authority and credibility to engage in serious negotiations, it is unlikely that such a party can strike a deal. And if a deal were to be struck, it is likely to be repudiated by whoever comes next. Therefore, anyone who bases the argument for talks on premises like “Let’s give dialogue a chance” or “Because we must” or any other similar notion cannot be taken seriously.

The biggest threat to international security, not just India’s national security, is Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. Pakistan cannot be at peace with itself, or with its neighbours, or with the world until and unless the military-jihadi complex is contained, dismantled and ultimately destroyed. This grand task is neither India’s alone, nor is India capable of engaging in it all by itself.

If US troops were not engaged in Afghanistan and if US President Barack Obama’s political fortunes did not depend on success in Af-Pak, there would be no reason for India to engage in pointless talks with Pakistan. But the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, and covertly in Pakistan, is an opportunity for India, as Washington faces the unpalatable reality of having to confront the military-jihadi complex. Of course, there is a chance that the Obama administration will chicken out. Even so, it is in India’s interests to deprive Pakistan and the United States of the fig leaves they might want to cover their own escapes. Pakistan cannot blame tensions with India for not fighting the taliban, and the United States cannot use the same excuse in case it fails to compel the Pakistani military establishment to deliver.

So let the foreign secretaries talk. Let them make a list of all issues they want to talk about. And let them then talk about those issues. Just as talks won’t stop terrorism, they need not stop whatever measures India is taking to counter the terrorism.

Honesty demands the risks be stated upfront. One risk is that the United States will lose its nerve, and that New Delhi will fail to compel Washington to act against the military-jihadi complex.

But the bigger risk is that these talks might place the Indian government on a slippery slope of making permanent concessions in return for temporary ones. The desire for a deal, and the place in history that might come with one, will tempt Indian decisionmakers to err on the side of wishfulness. The best way to manage this risk is for the BJP and other parties to remain alert and remain opposed to any concessions, not talks.

The Pakistanis might complain that this is a dialogue of the deaf, and that India is intransigent and that they will not be able to halt terrorism unless India yields to their demands. Let them.