US diplomat Richard Holbrooke is on a mission impossible to South Asia. The US has lost the will to win a military victory in Afghanistan and various theories of second best options are being sounded out.
His ongoing exploratory visit to Islamabad and Kabul should be seen in the wider context of this unacknowledged but evident defeat. One might quibble about the expression “defeat”, but there is no other word to describe the situation that the US believes it finds itself in Afghanistan.
The plain truth is that the Obama administration indeed has a difficult task to perform in Afghanistan—if it is up to it. Securing that country will require strengthening the central government in Kabul and endowing it with capabilities to confront the serious challenges that exist there.
This will require, first and foremost, deterring Pakistan from destroying any semblance of order in Afghanistan, something that Islamabad began even as American jets were bombing the Al Qaeda hideouts in Tora Bora in 2001. Even at the height of the American offensive in the wake of 9/11 attacks, Pakistan was doing its best to prevent the absolute defeat of the Taliban. In recent years, help, if not outright support, to the Taliban has greatly increased. The US has to put an end to this if it has to have any chance of securing Afghanistan.
It is on this point that Washington fumbles: It knows very well that Pakistan has done everything in its power to destabilize the Hamid Karzai government. Yet it considers Islamabad to be an “indispensable ally” in its Afghan quest. That is not all. Inspired leaks to newspapers and TV channels now routinely accuse the Karzai regime of incompetence and corruption. Karzai is one Pashtun leader who stood up to the Durrani Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Ever since then he has been a sore spot for Islamabad. The US is merrily walking into a Pakistani trap.
When that happens, Pakistan would have attained its strategic objectives. In this zero-sum situation, it will be India’s loss. Once free of any obstacles in Kabul, Pakistan will devote all its energy to creating more trouble in Jammu and Kashmir. Islamabad’s admission of guilt for the Mumbai terror attacks should fool no one. There are bigger battles ahead for India.
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