Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Killing Osama was the easy part

Prof. Sandy Gordon of Australian National University makes some thoughtful comments on the likely future trajectory of the United States - Pakistan alliance. Arguably, US may suspend its aid programme if it emerges that elements within the Pakistani establishment "knew" of the presence of Osama bin Laden. The issue is as to what degree US wants to or is in a position to queer the pitch or turn on the heat on Pakistan. Gordon sees the US compulsions in terms of the North Waziristan problem and the transit route that Pakistan provides for the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Gordon argues that this US dependence on Pakistan may last for another two years or so and thereafter the relationship is fated to get atrophied.
Gordon makes three other points, namely, that US drawdown in Afghanistan is inexorable in the post-Osama scenario and will be hastened by US' need to prioritise its economy over foreign policy, cut down on military budget and refocus on China. Two, China is not seeking to replace the US as Afghanistan's patron. Three, the emergent AfPak security paradigm hurts Indian interests.
What Gordon fails to factor in are the following elements. Isn't it presumptuous that US will overlook the danger of repeating what it did in 1989 which was to scoot once the Afghan jihad was over and the Soviet Union was done with, and allow the residual forces of militancy to incubate in a near future and regroup under ISI's stewardship through the early 1990s and then come back and hit at the US interests by the second half of that decade? In short, continued US involvement with Pakistan becomes almost unavoidable in the medium term and that would translate as continued US aid to Pakistan so as to leverage Washington's influence on Islamabad. There seems no easy way out of this syndrome.
Second, Gordon overlooks that even assuming that US is resetting its sights on China in its regional policies - and, especially if it is indeed so - Afghanistan and Central Asia can only become even more crucial strategic arena for the "great game". Some Russian comments have actually begun anticipating that US is about to shift gear into an activist mode in Central Asia in the coming months and likely work on effecting "regime change" in the region. Interestingly, last week Barack Obama phoned up Kazakh President Nurusultan Nazarabayev and spoke of the need for democratic reforms in Central Asia.
Over and above, all evidence is that there is no let-up in the US' search for a status of forces agreement with Kabul that formalises long-term US (and NATO) military presence in Afghanistan. In sum, it is premature to estimate that post-Osama, US is getting ready to cut and run from the Central Asian region.
Third, US cannot pursue an effective containment policy toward Iran without a firm foothold in Central Asia. It is logical that the US regional calculus will continue to envisage the "Greater Middle East" as one continuous strategic entity that stretches from the Persian Gulf to Kazakhstan and is supervised under the Central Command. There is hardly any scope to abdicate from Central Asia and still hope to be optimal in "containing" Iran.
Finally, Gordon simply leaves out the upheaval in the Middle East and the huge challenge to the US regional strategies. From the US-Israeli perspective, Egypt is already becoming a "problem child" of the Arab revolution. The challenge assumes criticality if the Arab Spring begins to envelop the Persian Gulf's "pro-West" autocratic regimes. This is where a great need may arise for the US to rope in Pakistan, which is uniquely placed with a big standing army and much surplus manpower and is a major Sunni country. The US is keen to polarise the Persian Gulf along the Sunni-Shi'ite schism while Iran is doing all it can to frustrate that ploy. In short, the cat-and-mouse games of the US-Iran standoff are edging toward a defining moment and Pakistan's role is of great significance for both Washington and Tehran. Besides, the danger of a military conflict involving Iran always exists - and more so with the US public opinion in a jingoistic mood and US desperately coping with the growing isolation of Israel in the Middle East.
Gordon hits the bull's eye insofar as China will keep its head under the parapet and would have no inclination to waste its resources to stabilise Afghanistan. China would rather see US continue to "do the heavy liftng" instead of becoming strategically involved and to concentrate on the lucrative economic spin-off. This is also consistent with the Chinese philosophy of not getting involved in other countries' internal affairs.
Alas, India is placed between the rock and a hard place. Any US appeasement of Pakistan in an Afghanistan settlement can only be at the cost of India's influence in Kabul. Any abrupt US departure from the region leaving matters in such a mess can only pose security challenges of immense proportions for India. India would like to tap into US's capacity to influence on Pakistan, but any big US military aid to Pakistan also hurts Indian interests. All India can hope for is that the nascent dialogue with Pakistan gains traction but then, that's easier said than done.


Anoosh said...

Some sources, the Stratfor group among them, have been talking about the possibility the US and Iran's interest converge to the point that a rapprochement between them may be possible.
I am interested in the author's views about this possibility.

Anoosh Ghazai

A said...

Iran will be wooed over by the U.S. at some point in the near future as like you said their interests coincide. Stabilizing Iraq with its pull on the majority shia in Iraq, helping organize the shia into an effective government and helping the U.S. contain or defeat the ignorant Taliban and support the Government in Kabul is where the stupid U.S. doesn't realize the value that Iran brings to the table. As the U.S. economy starts to resemble that of the former Soviet Union, I guess a rapprochement with Iran would look more and more attractive to the U.S. as the general Iranian population is not hostile to the the U.S. unlike those in Saudi and Pakistan. A significant number of suicide bombers and terrorists who attack the U.S. forces in Iraq are Saudi or Jordanian sunni/ Wahhabi's. Same goes for the Pukhtun Taliban. Iran is vehemently opposed to both!