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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 52, December 12, 2009

Obama treads Soviet Road out of Kabul

Saturday 12 December 2009, by M K Bhadrakumar

The new Afghan strategy announced by United States President Barack Obama on December 1 is a game-changer in regional politics across a broad swathe of the international system. The reactions in capitals as far removed as Beijing, Tehran, New Delhi and Moscow amply bear this out.

Broadly speaking, just about everyone under-stands that the US surge of 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan is a passing necessity. It merely provides the gateway to an end-game strategy aimed at ensuring American power doesn’t get bogged down in a pointless quagmire in the Hindu Kush.

Quintessentially, it is the first dazzling display of “smart power” that the Obama Administration promised the world audience when it assumed office in January. No one expected that American military power or the US capacity to exercise power was going to be replenished in the conceivable future.

The general expectation of the world community was—including among quarters that called for the speedy vacation of the military occupation of Afghanistan—that Washington was not going to be able to easily wriggle its way out from the debilitating engagements in the Greater Middle East any time soon, and that this gave plentiful lead time for other actors to scale advantageous heights in the emerging world order.

Thus, Obama’s December 1 speech on Afghanistan, delivered at the West Point Military Academy, holds huge implications for regional politics. The initial reactions of regional capitals are couched in friendly terms towards Obama’s speech but they can barely disguise an underlying sense of anxiety that borders on confusion.

A solitary exception is Iran, which is appalled that Obama is contemplating the stabilisation of Afghanistan without caring for Tehran’s helping hand. The Obama strategy would have serious implications for the Iran nuclear issue as Washington will be in a better position now to steer the United Nations (UN) Security Council to adopt severe sanctions against Tehran over its uranium-enrichment programme. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded out her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) meeting of Foreign Ministers in Brussels on December 4.

There is a degree of concern palpable in Tehran. The venerable Shi’ite Source of Emulation, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, hit out at Russia and China publicly as rank opportunists. Tacitly referring to the two countries, Shirazi said:

They are not our friends; they are the friends of their own interests. Wherever their interests lie is where they will be.

Obama may already be sensing the early gains of his “smart policy”. The US’ chief negotiator on the Iran issue, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, is proceeding to Beijing for urgent consultations on December 8. Unsurprisingly, Tehran has opted for a “hard line”, harping on about the US occupation of Afghanistan being the only issue on the table today.

Beijing, in comparison, came up with a nuanced reaction. It “took note” of Obama’s speech and hoped that the strategy would pave the way for “an Afghanistan of peace, stability, development and progress” as well as promote “enduring peace and stability in the region”. Significantly, in a gesture towards Pakistan, which came in for sharp criticism in Obama’s speech, Beijing added that

China holds [that] the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the relevant countries [read Af-Pak] should be respected.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman concluded with what might be construed as an indirect message to India as well that “China and the US maintain communication and consultation on South Asian issues, including the Afghanistan issue” and will continue the “dialogue and cooperation”—meaning that there cannot be any “stand-alone” Sino-American cooperation over Afghanistan, but on the contrary, China seeks to be a stakeholder in the South Asian region’s security issues as a whole.

New Delhi, in comparison, deliberately chose to take to rhetoric and to interpret Obama’s speech narrowly as a tirade against Pakistan’s support of terrorism. It had nothing to say about Obama’s end-game strategy as such, though New Delhi is averse to a swift US withdrawal from Afghanistan. India is a direct beneficiary of any effort by the US to pressure Islamabad to give up its support of militant Islamist groups operating in the region.

Equally, New Delhi is carefully insulating itself from allowing the India-Pakistan relationship to be dragged into the cauldron of Obama’s regional agenda. Indeed, India has the requisite diplomatic agility to steer the Obama era in a constructive direction (from its point of view) by closely working with the US leadership on a range of issues (such as climate change). This way it can ensure that the overall momentum of the US-India strategic partnership is kept up and there is a steady deepening of the partnership.

Ironically, it is not only the innocents abroad but a large corpus of Americans at home, who are struggling to catch up with the seamless possibilities of Obama’s new thinking about the exercise of US hard and soft power and the alchemy of its mix in varying circumstances.

The furious debate among American opinion-makers is testimony to the fact that there are times when a gifted leadership can outstrip “expert opinion” in sheer foresight. As President Mikhail Gorbachev said in a memorable speech at the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee plenary circa 1987, stereotyped minds are often like birds unable to muster the courage to spread wings and take to the skies even when the cage has been left open.


It is Moscow’s reaction that ought to catch Obama’s close attention as his Administration navigates its way through the difficult period ahead. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement on December 2 began with the curiously worded articulation that “Moscow, in general, regards positively the key points of the renewed US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan”. It expressed the hope that Obama’s strategy would contribute to the “speedy formation of Afghanistan as a self-sustaining, prosperous and independent state, free from drug crime and terrorism”.

But then, Obama had just pointed out that he wasn’t in the business of “nation-building” in Afghanistan. In fact, he stressed that the only nation-building project that he was really interested in was in regard to regenerating America.

The Russian statement said Moscow is “sympathetic” to the US surge in Afghanistan, but “firmly” believes in the Afghanisation of the war and to that extent it was supportive of Obama’s line on transferring “full power and responsibility for the situation” to President Hamid Karzai’s government—by comprehensively assisting it in the economic and military spheres. Moscow is particularly interested in the priority shown by Obama on developing the agriculture sector of Afghan economy, which is directly related to the eradication of poppy cultivation.

In a key passage, the statement added:

We [Moscow] share the US’ view regarding the close relationship between the factors fuelling the instability in Afghanistan and in neighbouring Pakistan. Providing assistance to Islamabad in ensuring sustainable economic development and internal political stability should accelerate the achievement of normalcy in the region. Of particular importance is the urgent need to eliminate the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan’s areas bordering Afghanistan.

In short, Moscow reminded Obama of the imperative need for a long-term US commitment to the security and stability of the Af-Pak region and a strengthening of the Karzai Government’s capacity to wrest the initiative from the Taliban.

However, there is another caveat. Moscow also wants the US to eschew its lone-ranger approach.

The solution of all these tasks requires the broadest possible international cooperation under UN auspices. A positive role is also to be played by the states of the region, as well as organisations operating there, especially the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organisation] and the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organisation].

Moscow wants a role, but only within the above parameters, so it can

continue to contribute to stabilisation efforts and the realisation of the programmes for socio-economic development in Afghanistan on the basis of equal partnership with other members of the international community.

(Emphasis added)

Subsequently, Moscow has assured that it will continue to extend the facilities of the northern corridor for supplying NATO contingents in Afghanistan. In overall terms, Russia is yet to figure out the full American intentions, but it will be far from happy if US forces vacate Afghanistan anytime in the near future. There is uneasiness that Obama failed to mention anything about the role of regional powers.


How reliable is the Russian advice to Obama? It cannot be lost on Moscow that the developing situation bears close similarity to the 1986-89 phase leading to the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

To be sure, setting aside pride and prejudice, Moscow would realise that Obama has good chance of still succeeding where the Kremlin failed for a variety of reasons. The Taliban doesn’t enjoy the anywhere near the level of international support that the mujahideen had.

Two, unlike in 1992, the Afghan Government is relatively stable and can draw on international support in terms of aid and political recognition. (Actually, the Communist Government in Kabul showed staying power despite the Kremlin pulling out troops.)

Three, the Soviets lacked any reach to the mujahideen sanctuaries inside Pakistan, whereas America’s Predator drones possess precisely the capability to peer deep into Pakistani territory. The Obama Administration has just revealed that it will not hesitate to deploy these aircraft over the Balochistan skies and take out the so-called Quetta shura (council)—the Taliban’s ruling council based in Pakistan—should the need arise.

Pakistani leader General Zia ul-Haq got away with a lot of nonsense in the Soviet era but the present powers in Islamabad lack the leverage that the Cold War provided.

Of course, the regime of Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah (1986-92) had far greater reach over the country than the Karzai Government enjoys, but it should not be overlooked that the coalition Najibullah had built drew deeply from his vast knowledge and experience as the ruthless intelligence chief of Afghanistan’s Communist regime.

In certain ways, the US strategy is moving towards the Soviet approach during the end game in the 1980s. The Soviets, once they made up their minds to vacate Afghanistan (circa 1985, after the failure of the famous Panjshir offensive), quickly switched gear to create islands of stability where the normal business of life could carry on, with schools and primary health centres, the trammels of authority such as police apparatus and civil servants and so on. The Soviets achieved this by securing the cities and the main roads connecting them and establishing Kabul’s grip over them.

Not many would recollect that soon after assuming power in the Kremlin, Gorbachev, too, ordered a surge in 1985. Unlike Obama’s proposed 18 months, he gave the Red Army commanders just about a year to do whatever they wanted to “win” the war if they could, after which, he said, the occupation would be vacated.

Obama should punctuate the parallels with the Soviet experience at this point. Instead of dumping the head of the government of the day as the Kremlin did a little after the Soviet troops pulled out in February 1989, Obama should have greater attention span, resilience, and more sincere commitment to regional stability.

Obama would do well to recall from the archives the memorable events that followed when Najibullah was unable to pay the salaries of the Uzbeki troops on whom he critically depended. Then, Rashid Dostum, with tacit encouragement from Moscow, defected to the camp of Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and brought the entire edifice tumbling down. Najibullah defaulted by just two to three months and Dostum lost his temper and stormed out to the mujahideen camp. Simply put, Najibullah ran out of money to pay his retainers.

The fatal Soviet mistake should not be repeated. Karzai, too, has shown the skill needed to weave a spider-like web of a coalition, such as Najibullah’s. In a way, he faces far less isolation today than his Communist predecessor.

Like Najibullah, Karzai hails from a powerful Pashtun tribe. No matter what the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, says publicly, he should know well enough that Karzai has a base and a name among Kandahari Pashtuns and if he combines with the powerful Ghilzais—the largest Pashtun tribe—like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the coalition could prove formidable. Power has a logic of its own in the Hindu Kush. Obama should encourage Karzai to exercise power rather marginalise him.

Yet there are disturbing signs that the Americans are not getting the picture. There is talk of side-stepping Karzai and routing the American aid directly to “local leaders”. That would be a catastrophic mistake that would almost certainly ensure that Afghanistan descends into anarchy.

For one thing, Karzai will not tolerate such a public slight, and endless complications will arise in the equations between Washington and Kabul during the sensitive period ahead, which will prove exasperating and provide a wasteful distraction. Secondly, the US will be tacitly encouraging local leaders to ignore Kabul’s writ. All sorts of fissiparous tendencies will surface.

Thirdly, Obama can be virtually certain that the so-called local leaders would take the Americans for a sweet, long ride. Never underestimate the Afghan ingenuity to inveigle foreigners in their scheme of things by creating an optical illusion that the latter call the shots.

It is a highly romantic notion that overnight “bearded Americans” could be moving about in the tangled mountains and deep cavernous ravines with roving bands of local Afghan militia. But the sojourn could prove lethal when you don’t even know how to distinguish between who is the Taliban and who is not.

(Courtesy: Asia Times Online)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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