Thursday, January 22, 2009

FOR INDIA, IF BUSH WAS GOOD, OBAMA WILL BE BETTER

When Barack Obama first said during his Democratic Presidential bid that he planned to talk directly to Iran, North Korea and Syria without any pre-conditions, he signalled a clear departure from the foreign policy followed by Bush. At that time, in fact, his announcement was sought to be attributed to his inexperience and less than complete understanding of the complexities of the situation. Similarly, when, in January 2007, he proposed to start withdrawing combat brigades from Iraq no later than May 1, 2007 and complete the withdrawal by March 31, 2008, even as Bush was planning to induct more troops, seasoned experts thought that he was naive.

Obama was clear from day one that the US had made a mistake by going into Iraq as that had resulted in diverting attention and resources from the war on terror in Afghanistan due to which the Al Qaeda and the Taliban had not only escaped destruction but had emerged stronger, particularly in Pakistan. That is probably what prompted him to declare as early as in August 2007, that US troops will go into Pakistan to hunt down terrorists there, even without permission of the Pakistani Government: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

Within a day of his taking over, President Obama has outlined his foreign policy agenda on the White House website. The focus of the Obama-Biden team is evident from the fact that the greatest threat to America's security has been identified as the "resurgence of the Al Qaeda and the Talban in Afghanistan and Pakistan" resulting in a resolve to finish the fight against theses organisations and to "secure nuclear weapons and loose nuclear materials from terrorists". This is topped by the statement that Obama and Biden will "increase non-military aid to Pakistan and hold them accountable for security in the border region with Afghanistan".

It is indeed surprising that these potentially game-changing foreign policy statements have not drawn the kind of attention that they should have in the Indian media. The only aspect that seems to have caught attention is Pakistan's response to being held accountable, with its ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani even threatening to "review all options if Obama does not adopt a positive policy towards us".

If one takes an overview of Obama's policy towards this region, based on his previous pronouncements and the foreign policy agenda put out by the White House, it is clear that Obama wants to pull out of the needless and enervating war that Bush got the US into in Iraq and concentrate all resources to conclusively defeat terror whose epicenter lies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you." That was the warning he gave in his inaugural address, even as he held out a hand to Iran - " we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." - an offer repeated in the White House website.

Shia Iran is not involved in the web of terror that has taken deep roots in large parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This terror is rooted in the Saudi-financed Wahhabi Islam that sees Jews, Christians, Sufis and even Shias as enemies. Bush had repeatedly threatened to take the war into Iran too, if that country did not terminate its illicit nuclear program, as if America's power was limitless and its coffers bottomless. Obama has, wisely, discarded that Texan cowboy approach, to focus on the one problem that needs his attention and the resolution of which will make America and the world safe.

A couple of months before he became President, in an interview with Joe Klien of Time magazine, Obama spoke about working with India and Pakistan to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way. But, the important point that perhaps did not get due attention was that his idea was to get Pakistan off Kashmir to better face "the biggest threat...coming from the Afghan border". He did not, in any way, make the preposterous and ill-informed suggestion that British Foreign Secretary Dave Miliband did during his recent visit to India, linking Kashmir with terrorism in India.

As I had argued in an earlier post, Afghanistan and Pakistan are essentially two sides of the same terror coin. Any attempt to solve the dispute in a manner that gives even a notional victory to Pakistan and it terror infrastructure will only fuel more terror attacks on India, not eliminate them. Post Mumbai 11/26, Miliband must be in an ignorant minority of only one to believe otherwise. People like him should not even be allowed to enjoy the pleasures of dalit tourism that demeans dalits, without the poor, simple folk even realising that they have become a new source of entertainment for the rich and powerful of the whole world. You never know what he may have to say about them at some point of time.

President Obama is clear about his resolve to defeat terror that is centred in Afghanistan but that survives because of, and is fed by, Pakistan which since the time of Zia-ul-Haq has nurtured and used it as an instrument of foreign policy. He is acutely aware that any premature pull out from the region before the battle is decisively won will be totally disastrous. He knows that FATA and the Frontier have already become Taliban land, as has 70% of Afghanistan. He also knows that powerful elements of the Pakistani state are still sleeping with the enemy - that is why the linking of the aid with accountability.

He must be already aware, or will soon be, that more important than taking out the weapons in the hands of terrorists is taking out the ideology that has created this monster, an ideology that has not only overrun Afghanistan and large parts of Western Pakistan but has seeped deep into Punjab and the Punjabi dominated military too.

As per The Times of India of January 22, 2009, there is some dismay in New Delhi that Obama's foreign policy agenda document does not carry any mention of India as one of America's major allies. Given the situation as it obtains today and the fact that 70% of the supplies needed for troops in Afghanistan go through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass, the US needs Pakistan as an ally in its war on terror, even though the latter is cheating unashamedly. Overtly, it can name only one of the two hostile neighbours as its 'ally'.

Notwithstanding this situational constraint, there is little doubt that there is near congruity in the national interests of the US and India in so far as the war on terror is concerned. President Obama's world view and his foreign policy agenda announced a day after he became President should please India rather than dismay it for frivolous reasons.

The common problem of terror that India and the US face is becoming so intractable that what appears to be the setting for the Fourth Battle of Panipat, this time in Pakistan's Punjab, has already begun to take shape. Whether that battle takes place physically or not will depend upon the of ability of ordinary Muslims of Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan, FATA and the Frontier to defeat and eject the ideology that can only bring ruin to them.

Either way, the only real and natural allies in this fight are the US and India, and elements in Pakistan who do not owe allegiance to intolerant merchants of death and destruction. Who will know it better than President Obama, if not today, after a few months in the saddle?

Bush may have been good for India; Obama will only be better.