By B. Raman
Pakistan’s post-Abbottabad sulking and partly-real, partly-manufactured anti-US anger have had no impact on President Barack Obama’s counter-sanctuary emphasis in his counter-terrorism strategy.
It was this counter-sanctuary emphasis that enabled the successful extermination of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, by US naval commandos raiding his house clandestinely at Abbottabad and the successes scored by the Drone (pilotless planes of the CIA) strikes against other medium and high-value targets of Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan’s jihadi belt— wherever that belt is located, in the tribal areas or outside.
The counter-sanctuary operations which were confined to the tribal belt till May 2, have been extended beyond unilaterally. A future repeat of this extension to areas outside the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) cannot be ruled out if necessary to wipe out the surviving remnants of the high-value leadership of Al Qaeda.
This message—loud and clear—had repeatedly come out of Washington DC since May 2 and it came out again in Mr. Obama’s address to the American people on June 23 outlining his plan for a de-surge in Afghanistan, which would involve the withdrawal — in two instalments of 10,000 and 23,000 troops— of the reinforcements that he had sent to Afghanistan in 2009. The de-surge would start next month and would be completed by election time next year.
The planned de-surge is based on a less pessimistic assessment of the counter-insurgency situation on the ground in Afghanistan. The peak in pessimism seen in 2009 has given way to the first signs of hope—though not optimism— that the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda has started moving gradually in the direction desired by the US.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has not yet been defeated, but has been contained. It has been made amenable to enter the process of negotiation. Al Qaeda, its ally, has suffered such serious attrition in Pakistan that its usefulness as an ally has diminished. Al Qaeda and its affiliates do not seem to be in a position to reverse the tide and recover their balance.
The threats from the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda & Co have been contained. From a phase of containment, the US policy has moved into a phase of elimination of the threat which does not require the engagement of the same level of forces as till now.
Mr. Obama’s less pessimistic assessment of the counter-insurgency ground situation in Afghanistan is accompanied by a realistic assessment of the counter-terrorism ground situation in the jihadi belt of Pakistan. The belt remains. The irrational jihadi ardour remains. The insincerity of the Pakistani political and military establishment in dealing with jihadi terrorism remains. The sanctuaries remain.The suspicions regarding Pakistani official complicity with the terrorist remnants remain.
How to deal with this complex ground situation in Pakistan’s jihadi belt? Victory is not yet in sight in the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, but there are hopes of victory. The scene on the ground is no longer one of unmitigated gloom as it was since the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US homeland.
How to translate these seeming hopes into durable reality? Will they concretise into reality or turn out to be another chimera? The answer to this question has to come from the jihadi belt of Pakistan. It has to come from the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army. It has to come from the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It has to come from the confused political and military leadership of Pakistan, which continues to live in a make-believe world of its own imaginary creation thinking and hoping that the importance of Pakistan’s strategic location and value will once again prevail in the US geostrategic calculations and that it can reverse its tide of gloom.
Mr. Obama has taken care to discourage the illusions of the Pakistani leadership. He said in his address to his people: “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.”
It is a strong message that India has every reason to welcome. There is more stick than carrots in the message. There are more admonitions than lollipops in the message. India should keep discreetly nudging the US to keep translating the message into reality without relenting periodically as the US has been wont to do. That will be in the interest of both the US and India.
Can Pakistan change? Can Pakistan be made to change? The answers to those questions lie in New Delhi and Washington DC and nowhere else in the world.