The United States President Barack Obama’s drawdown speech will not stand out in the volume of his selected works as an outstanding piece of oratory. The rhetorical flourish of “On the Way Forward in Afghanistan” was definitely below par. On the other hand, Obama knew the occasion is not one of celebration but of having to give a sober, convincing justification for what has got to be done about something that went horribly wrong and to give a reasonably plausible explanation to a perplexed nation why wars have to sometimes end with a handshake with the enemy.
The speech’s underlying theme is Obama’s decision to terminate his commander David Petraeus’ famous ‘surge’ track and to shift from “combat to support”. Obama is sceptical about the purposiveness of continued ‘surge’. He succumbed to the tantalising idea of the ‘surge’ in 2009 as a commander-in-chief with only patchy experience as a Senator in military and foreign affairs or global politics (although a highly cerebral mind), but today he is a much more opinionated man.
He has rejected the Pentagon’s enthusiasm for more of the ‘surge’ and has instead asked them to plan for their troop withdrawal. The drawdown Obama has decided upon envisages withdrawal of 10000 troops by end-2011, 33000 troops by mid-2012 and the remaining 70000 troops at a “steady pace” through 2013 – so that by end-2014 “this process of transition will be complete”. Obama left it open whether there will be an American military presence on a long-term in the Hindu Kush. Conceivably, he left it vague since he can’t decide such matters by himself anymore and the decision-makers will now also include the Taliban.
Besides, Obama admits America’s limitations. This is “a time of rising debt and hard economic times at home.” On the other hand, Obama says al-Qaeda is a spent force and is no reason to wage a war anymore. As he put it, “the tide of war is receding.” Obama’s speech is all through laced with such vignettes of political optimism about the outcome of the war. He speaks of the reconciliation of Taliban as viable. The cloud of scepticism has lifted from the American mind about who to talk with and whether the insurgent is willing to talk at all. The mood is of ‘forget-and-forgive’. The US now accepts the Taliban as part and parcel of the Afghan people.
Obama repeats that the reconciliation must be ‘Afghan-led’ but it could be a feeble reiteration of a standard US position. However, Obama exuded optimism about the reconciliation of the Taliban. He says he has “reason to believe that progress can be made… the goal that we seek is achievable.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain further. It could be that he is quietly pleased with the feedback he got from the US officials who are secretly confabulating with the Taliban. Or, it could be that he rationalises the prospects. At any rate, his speech never once doubts whether the Taliban are amenable to persuasion or may be willing to deal.
Again, Obama goes right over the head of the Afghan president Hamid Karzai (whom he omits mentioning even once) to the Afghan people at large and sees them as America’s interlocutor in the Hindu Kush. Equally, he never says ‘Thank you’ to Pakistan, either. In a way, he might have thought it just as well that he ‘liberates’ both Karzai and the Pakistan leadership from the bondage of their alliance with the US; they have proved to be difficult allies.
Obama is also silent on any effort to get the difficult region around Afghanistan to work with the US but he announced his intention to host a high-profile international conference in Chicago in May – right in the middle of his re-election campaign – “to shape the next phase of this [Afghan] transition.” Obama’s right to make political mileage at home from the conclusion of the Afghan war is never in doubt. He has shown the political courage to accept that the Afghan war cannot be won. Most important, he accepts that keeping the Taliban out of the Afghan power is no longer the American objective and his agenda has narrowed down to defending the security of his ‘homeland’ from international terrorism.
In the Central Asian region, Obama’s speech won’t take much time to sink in. It is in the best traditions of ‘shock-and-awe’. There is stillness in the steppes as the policymakers quickly huddle in their respective capitals to do stocktaking. The plain truth is that the region’s interests do not coincide with Obama’s. They probably never really did but now onward they glaringly diverge.
The region also does not share Obama’s optimism about what lies ahead. Most important, there is a strong undercurrent of resentment as happens invariably when the doer walks away with the job left half-undone and even the debris is abandoned around the work table for the scavengers to come and clean up.
It will take time and a lot of effort to convince the Central Asian region that al-Qaeda is vanquished. The Americans taught everyone to believe in the al-Qaeda problem and Obama now calls upon the international community to unlearn. There are signs that even Pakistan is getting convinced of an of al-Qaeda problem. The military has begun a thorough purge of officers with al-Qaeda sympathies. There are almost-daily bombings in Pakistan that are attributed to the al-Qaeda.
Second, Obama pleads American has no money for reconstruction. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home”, Obama said in a near-plaintive tone. Those dozen words will be echoing not only in the valleys and mountaintops of Afghanistan, but all through the Central Asian steppes. Obama has made it clear that nation-building in Afghanistan is not on his mind. All eyes will be cast on the summit in Chicago in May. Will the western world undertake to reconstruct something at least of what it destroyed in Afghanistan? That will be the question.
The Central Asian countries’ security and Afghanistan’s stability are inter-connected to the extent of being almost indistinguishable. The Central Asian countries individually do not have the wherewithal to dust up and implement the Marshall Plan that the former US President George W. Bush promised once for Afghanistan. A collective effort becomes necessary, which of course presupposes a regional initiative at some stage that can subsume regional rivalries and reconcile the contradictions in the inter-regional situation.
The only forum that can undertake such an enterprise will be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a security organization and the European Union is far from in a position to undertake such an undertaking in a faraway region, especially given the crisis in the Eurozone economies.
Then, there are a host of issues breaking loose from Obama’s speech. No doubt, his speech will send shivers of fear down the spine of the non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan. They were hitherto critical that Karzai was unnecessarily mooting the reconciliation of the Taliban but now they understand that the US has by far outstripped him and is raring to go. Obama didn’t make any distinction between the ‘good Taliban’ and the ‘bad Taliban’. Conceivably, the US holds the door open for even Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network to walk in and join mainstream political life if they choose to do so.
Again, it becomes the responsibility of the regional powers to encourage the Afghans of different ethnicity and nationality to move toward a genuinely broad-based form of governance. Call it what you will but it needs to be a common home. Afghanistan has come a long way in the past 3 decades and it is unrealistic to long for a ‘Pashtun-dominated’ regime. There has been a political awakening among the smaller nationalities. Countries neighbouring Afghanistan – Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in particular – have a special responsibility in this regard.
The Central Asians will also worry how the triumphal return of the Taliban plays out among the forces of Islamism in their region. The region is already caught up in the throes of an anxiety syndrome about the likely advent of an ‘Arab Spring’. The comfort level is very low at the moment if experts are to be believed. The prominent Russian historian Andrey Zubov told Novosti recently that he was sure that a “similar phenomenon [like “Arab Spring] may materialise” in Central Asian countries and even in Russia where the “regime is essentially of the same type as Central Asian regimes, albeit more relaxed and Europeanised.”
The SCO just passed its tenth anniversary a week ago and probably is being thrust into a central role already in regional security as the only credible bulwark against instability and religious extremism and terrorism. Afghanistan becomes the second country after Tajikistan to try to integrate Islamists into the power structure. But the differences are glaring. For one thing, the central authority in Dushanbe was never that weak as it happens to be in Kabul.
Second, even in its weakest moments in the Boris Yeltsin era, Moscow didn’t falter in its commitment as the backbone of “state power” in Tajikistan. The Russian troops became ‘guarantors’, in a manner of speaking, lest things began disintegrating. Finally, the wonderful Russian-Iranian understanding that Yevgeniy Primakov and Ali Akbar Velayati painstakingly forged became the vital underpinning of the Tajik settlement, which ultimately made even the detractors who came to criticize or ridicule the settlement to grudgingly accept it.
That is to say, Afghanistan needs a similar underpinning at the regional level. Once again, it becomes SCO’s call. All this boils down to the criticality of a regional consensus. The SCO decision to consider the membership of India and Pakistan may have come just in the nick of time. The US strategy was to strike grand bargains or effect ”reset” selectively in its relations with individual countries and to retain the monopoly of conflict resolution in Afghanistan. But the strategy has failed. The geopolitical reality is that the US simply lacks the resources to carry on with the Afghan war.
The outgoing US Secretary of State Robert Gates, a statesman of immense experience who served 8 American presidents, admitted on CNN’s State of the Union over the weekend that he sees a diminished US superpower in the period ahead. Gates predicted that the war in Afghanistan would be wound up and NATO’s ‘victory’ in Libya is going to be slow and deep budgetary cuts in the Pentagon have become unavoidable.
Obama echoed these thoughts – US cannot afford to be isolationist or to “over-extend… confronting every evil that can be found abroad.” He underscored the importance of a “centrist course.” For the Central Asian countries, Obama’s drawdown speech should come as a moment of truth: US is a distant power.