A sovereign Afghanistan

Obama’s new strategy challenges the Taliban and the Pakistan army

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: May 3, 2012 3:21 am

Obama’s new strategy challenges the Taliban and the Pakistan army

A series of events this week and others to follow in the coming days underline the emergence of a sovereign Afghanistan that is taking charge of its own destiny. As Kabul seeks and receives support from its international partners,its adversaries are not hiding their intentions to destabilise Afghanistan.

The first was the unannounced visit of President Barack Obama to Kabul Tuesday night to unveil a security pact with Afghanistan that lays out a decade-long American commitment to the nation after the US ends its combat role there by 2014.

The second was Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul’s consultations in New Delhi on implementing Afghanistan’s strategic partnership agreement with India that was signed last October. Delhi was the first to sign such an agreement with Kabul.

Later this month, the US and its allies will gather in Chicago to reinforce Obama’s commitment to the security of Afghanistan. In July,the international community will convene in Tokyo and make financial pledges to Afghanistan’s development in the coming years.

In the not too distant future,India has decided to host in Delhi a conference of “regional investors” to mobilise international corporate support for Afghanistan’s economic growth. India would want to invite all potential contributors including businessmen from Pakistan and China.

Barely hours after Obama left Kabul and Rassoul wound up his talks in Delhi,the Taliban,with its sanctuaries in Pakistan,launched attacks on Kabul. Seen together with the spectacular bombings in Kabul last month,the latest attacks make it clear that the Taliban and its patrons will do their best to undermine Afghanistan.

The stage,then,is set for a new and more complex phase in the political evolution of Afghanistan,where the conflict is in its fourth decade. The most important feature of the emerging landscape on our north-western frontiers is the restoration of Afghan sovereignty.

Until now,the international forces have operated in Afghanistan under a mandate of the United Nations Security Council. Following the strategic partnership agreement with the United States,Kabul will negotiate a “status of forces agreement”,or SOFA,with Washington that will define the legal terms and conditions under which the American forces operate in Afghanistan.

The US will soon complete the transition in Afghanistan’s security management. Nearly 50 per cent of the country has already become the responsibility of Afghan security forces. By 2013,the Afghan forces will be fully responsible for their national security.

As Obama steadily downsizes the American military footprint in Afghanistan,the US forces will move towards a supportive role. In his speech,Obama made it clear that the US will not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan.

An unspecified number of US troops will remain in the country to pursue a few essential missions — train,advise and assist Afghan forces,help Kabul defend its sovereignty,and conduct counter-terror operations in the region,especially against Pakistan.

In visiting Kabul on the first anniversary of the raid and execution of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad,Obama has settled on a new approach to Afghanistan that is likely to acquire a broad domestic political consensus in the US.

In his address to the American people from Kabul,Obama explained his decision to follow the middle path between those who want a permanent US military commitment to Afghanistan and others who want an immediate withdrawal.

Obama’s latest strategy will seek to responsibly end the longest foreign war that the US has ever fought. At the same time the strategy calls for building an enduring partnership with a sovereign Afghanistan. Obama’s message to the Afghan people is a simple one: “as you stand up,you will not stand alone.”

Given the current inability of Afghanistan to support a large armed force,the US and its allies are expected to pledge an annual payment of nearly $ 4 billion at the Chicago conference. This will ensure Kabul’s ability to sustain a credible military force to defend Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

Sceptics would ask if Kabul can rely on the US and its allies to keep their word. In international life,of course,nothing is guaranteed. That is a risk Kabul must and will take as part of becoming sovereign.

Obama’s new Afghan policy is a big challenge to the Taliban and Pakistan,which had assumed that time was on their side and that the current political arrangements in Kabul would simply collapse after 2014.

Obama knows that Afghanistan’s sovereignty can’t be secured without a measure of cooperation from Pakistan. Washington is also aware that there is nothing to suggest that Pakistan is ready to offer such cooperation.

How this contradiction between the interests of Kabul and the international community on the one hand and the Pakistan army’s policy of destabilising Afghanistan on the other plays out will be the story of India’s north-western frontier in the coming months.

Since Obama began to talk about an “exit” strategy in 2009,India’s principal concern has been about Washington “ceding” Afghanistan to Pakistan. The unfolding US and international commitment to Kabul suggests Afghanistan will not be abandoned. Even more important is the new message from Kabul — that it has the political will to defend against the Taliban and other threats from its eastern borders.

Delhi’s stakes in Afghanistan have always been high,for conflicts there have had a lasting impact on India’s national security. Yet Delhi has been a relatively marginal player in Afghanistan all these decades.

India’s strategic partnership agreement with Kabul and the emerging international context allows India,for the first time since Partition,to contribute to outcomes in Afghanistan.

Acting in concert with other powers and keeping a relentless focus on the Afghans themselves,India can redeem its responsibility for securing the sovereignty of Afghanistan.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi,express@expressindia.com

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