Page 1 of 2 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
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
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
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.