There was nothing Delphic about it. US President Barack Obama’s choices in Afghanistan are reflective of what an average American politician would do, when placed in his position: Optimize. Unfortunately, optimizing between political viability at home and achieving strategic goals abroad is unworkable. The US experience in Vietnam should serve as a warning to him.

Politically, the two “pure" choices before him were to either withdraw in a phased manner from Afghanistan or to commit a winning number of boots on the ground. He did neither. Withdrawal would have ensured the continued commitment of his flock, the anti-war democratic constituency. This would, however, have made the tide of Republican revival unstoppable. In the end, he chose a mixed strategy: 30,000 troops and a firm date of withdrawal. This is similar to what past US presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton to George Bush Jr have done in similar situations: Cut your losses.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

While the outcomes in complex political and military situations such as Afghanistan are uncertain, a likely scenario can be imagined. The Taliban, knowing that the US will begin an exit in 2011, will dig in. Pashtun resistance to foreign troops is legendary: The much more formidable British and the Soviet armies had to retreat in the face of their tenacity. The Taliban are even better equipped for this. They have more than a decade’s experience in fighting complex, and at times unequal, battles and also have the fullest support of their masters in Pakistan. Post-2011, the probability of the Taliban coming back to power in Kabul is close to certainty. This is because the Afghan national army will be in no position by that time to defend the country.

That would be as close to a disaster as South Asia can get. Pakistan, one can be sure, will not pursue any militants anymore. Period. It will simply wait for the Americans to get out of Afghanistan. Once Islamabad has secured Afghanistan, it will open a new chapter in terrorist violence against India. That will happen. Period.

What is amazing is that 48 hours after Obama delivered his speech to West Point cadets, there is silence in official India. Given the pace at which our national security establishment works, the chances are the results of 2011 are already upon us. The question is: Do we comprehend the dangerous situation in our western neighbourhood? The task of taking corrective action looks as distant as ever.

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