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    South Asia
     Dec 8, 2009
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Obama treads Soviet road out of Kabul
By M K Bhadrakumar

The new Afghan strategy announced by United States President Barack Obama last Tuesday 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 understands 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 stabilization 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 program. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded out her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Friday.

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's chief negotiator on the Iran issue, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, is proceeding to Beijing for urgent consultations on Tuesday. 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 AfPak] 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 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 Wednesday 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 a 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 regards to regenerating America.

The Russian statement said Moscow is "sympathetic" to the US surge in Afghanistan, but "firmly" believes in the Afghanization 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's view regarding the close relationship between the factors fueling the instability in Afghanistan and in neighboring 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 AfPak region and a strengthening of the Karzai government's capacity to wrest the initiative from the Taliban. 

Continued 1 2  

Meet the commanded-in-chief
(Dec 4, '09)

Iran left out in the cold (Dec 3, '09)

Obama rings the curtain on Pax Americana
(Dec 3, '09)

1. US takes hunt for al-Qaeda to Pakistan

2. Meet the commanded-in-chief

3. Seoul has its own fears over US surge

4. Beijing broods over its arc of anxiety

5. Google clicks on compromise

6. Vietnam-lite unveiled

7. Dubai adds to the Philippines' woes

8. Baghdad struggles over banned books

9. Putin delivers a presidential display

10. Dangers in jailing Malaysia's Anwar

(Dec 4-6, 2009)


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