By D Suba Chandran
Immediately after his re-election, Obama was quoted saying the best is yet to come, during his second term as the President. Is it true, for the Af-Pak region? Or will it get worse, as the US is preparing for its exit from Afghanistan in 2014?
Exit Afghanistan 2014: Will Obama Relook?
While there were other pressing concerns – domestic and international in his re-election discourse, the exit strategy of Obama in Afghanistan was also designed to be a part of his election campaign. With 9/11 becoming history in the American public’s mind, only to be remembered in those emotional meetings that take place each year in September, Afghanistan elicits even lesser public interest amongst the common man. While the establishment led by the White House, Pentagon and the CIA perceive Afghanistan in the larger strategic calculus, neither the public nor the Congress are on the same page on what should be the End Game in Afghanistan.
Now that he has been re-elected for another four years, will Obama relook his exit strategy and ensure a stable government in Afghanistan and thereby, stability in the Af-Pak region?
Unlikely. Obama’s personal mission and rhetoric in the Af-Pak region will be hugely shaped by what the entire American security establishment would want, and not his personal road map. Exiting Afghanistan seems to be the End Game for the American security establishment, irrespective of what happens. Neither does Obama have a vision for a stable Afghanistan leading to a secure Af-Pak region, unless he has kept it as a secret to be pursued in his second term.
Pakistan Post 2014: Will the US exit?
There have been serious apprehensions and anger amongst the American public and in the US Congress on Pakistan’s duplicity in fighting the war against terrorism. Even within the American establishment, there have been multiple statements at the highest level, including the most damning one on the ISI, linking it with the Haqqani Network. Obama’s second term will be crucial for American engagement in Pakistan. With the likely exit of American troops in Afghanistan by 2014, will Obama redraw his foreign policy towards Pakistan?
Unlikely. In fact, the engagement between the US and Pakistan would deepen, despite reservations. Now that the public has re-elected Obama for another four years, he or his party would have to worry about their sentiments only by 2015, when they start preparing for the next elections. Though the establishment and the Congress have serious reservations regarding Pakistan’s role in the war against terrorism, they would use it as a bargaining strategy to pressurize Islamabad and Rawalpindi to do more in Afghanistan.
The US needs Pakistan more now, at least up to 2014, as it prepares for its exit. It cannot afford antagonizing Pakistan, except for using aid and assistance as a leverage. Else, the exit could not only be bloody for the US, but also ensure whatever little edifice that the international community has built over the last decade in Afghanistan collapses in a short period; certainly, before the next American Presidential elections. Obama would like to keep this in his mind carefully. And, obviously, like the other great democrats of South Asia (like Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh) and the not so democrat (like Musharraf), the rhetorically ever-sound Obama would also want to leave his legacy in this region.
But more than Afghanistan, what would play in Obama’s mind (and that of the entire security establishment including the US Congress) is what Musharraf has brilliantly sold very successfully to an entire generation of Americans cutting across the common man, analysts, media and think tanks: an unstable Pakistan with the dangers of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radicals is not in the interest of the international community.
For Pakistan, nuclear weapons have become the biggest deterrence against any closure of economic aid by the international community. And obviously, as the custodians of nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s military should also expect an extension of this above aid and support from the US.
Obama is unlikely to dump Pakistan. And likely to exit from Afghanistan.
So, what does an American Exit (in Af) and Extension (in Pak) mean?
The American exit in Afghanistan means instability for the country and also for the region. Afghanistan is also facing two crucial elections before 2014 – the Presidential and Parliamentary. Both are likely to be controversial, if not bloody. The electoral reforms are not yet complete and voters’ registry is unlikely to be full and final before the next elections.
The idea of separation of powers between the leading institutions in Afghanistan is tilted towards Karzai; many would criticize that he has usurped the powers of other institutions – primarily the Parliament and to an extent, the judiciary. With no consensus or a schedule for the next Presidential elections, Karzai is likely to yield power, and the US will go along with him. Like Musharraf, Karzai also seems to have convinced the US that there is no alternative. While the nation building process in Afghanistan is incomplete, its military and policy are far from being effective instruments post 2014.
Obama would also like to strike an early deal with the Taliban, and ensure an ugly stability in Kabul before 2014. With his support for the establishment in Pakistan likely to continue, as they form the crucial link in the American exit, Obama would ignore Islamabad’s ingress into Afghanistan.
For Obama and the Af-Pak, the worst is yet to come.
D Suba Chandran
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