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Obama’s First Test?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/hotel.jpgFire breaks out at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai during terrorist attacks this week. (rubaljain, flickr)

President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on deploying additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan — and, potentially, taking military action in Pakistan — as part of a renewed focus on a neglected war against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. When he takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he’ll inherit a far different regional picture in South Asia than his campaign could have anticipated.

Over the past several weeks, developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India pose new challenges for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The Karzai government in Kabul has dramatically moved to bring the war to a conclusion — announcing the pursuit of far-reaching negotiations with the Taliban-led insurgency and calling, for the first time, for a U.S. timetable for withdrawal.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Changes and obstacles in Pakistan and India have significant implications for the region next year — particularly this week’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai that have left at least 160 people dead.

With Obama’s foreign-policy team not yet in place, it is unclear how his administration will handle what looks more and more like a simmering crisis in South Asia. Experts say hard choices are unavoidable.

The incoming administration must make “an overall assessment of where this [Afghanistan] mission is going,” Dan Markey, a former State Dept. official and current regional expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a conference call this week, “whether it accepts Afghanistan to be, in the next 10 years or 20 years, a modern, centralized state or … a place that will have to continue to be radically decentralized in order to be effective.”

Whatever Obama’s assessment of the future of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is, he will have to react to President Hamid Karzai’s recent initiatives. In October, the Afghan president sent his brother to Saudi Arabia to begin discussions with former members of the Taliban on whether a deal could be struck that ends the insurgency.

The Taliban — whose leadership is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta — have insisted that there can be no deal without U.S and NATO troops leaving first. But plans are underway in Washington to increase the number of U.S. troops by an Army brigade and a Marine battalion — about 5,000 troops — by January. At least two more Army brigades are expected to deploy to Afghanistan in 2009.

Experts in the U.S. have intensely debated the utility of negotiating with the Taliban. Most doubt that the so-called “Quetta Shura” Taliban — the hardcore of the religious movement driven out of power in 2001 and still loyal to Mullah Mohammed Omar — will negotiate a deal with the Karzai government. But they do see potential for the Afghan government to sow divisions between the Quetta Shura and its affiliated insurgent groups, as well as between the Taliban-led insurgency and the Afghan people.

“The enthusiasm that there is — such as there is — for reconciliation is very much along the lines of taking particular warlords who are aligning with the Quetta Shura and Mullah Omar as a matter of tactical convenience or economic advantage and peeling them off,” said Steve Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a confidante of Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general of U.S. forces in South Asia. His comments were in response to a question from The Washington Independent on the conference call.

Petraeus expressed openness to some form of negotiations with the Taliban during a talk in October to the conservative Heritage Foundation, as has Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Still, many questions remain. Even if non-Quetta Shura-dominated insurgents express an openness to negotiations, it’s unclear what the Karzai government is prepared to offer for peace. “The problem at the moment is figuring out what incentive an individual warlord has to switch sides,” Biddle said on the conference call. “There’s a lot of skepticism that what we have to offer can compete with the status, power, prestige, money and so on that the key warlords enjoy by being on the other side.”

In a pre-election interview with Time magazine’s Joe Klein, Obama tepidly endorsed exploring negotiations with the Taliban, drawing an analogy to Iraq. “The Sunni Awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally,” Obama said. “It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off … tribal leaders, regional leaders, Sunni nationalists from a more radical messianic brand of insurgency. Well, whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored.”

A complicating factor is Obama’s repeated insistence that under certain emergency conditions of Pakistani intransigence, he would use military force in Pakistan to kill or capture top Al Qaeda leaders. It is unknown what effect a military incursion would have on any prospective Karzai-Taliban peace talks.

This week, Karzai delivered another surprise. Speaking in Kabul to a visiting United Nations delegation, he publicly flirted with a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. “If there is no deadline, we have the right to find another solution for peace and security, which is negotiations,” he said. It is unclear how prepared Karzai is to press the issue with the new administration.

Intimately related to Afghanistan is a rapidly changing situation in Pakistan. The new government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has sent mixed signals to Washington. In response to increasing U.S. military incursions into Pakistani territory to attack leaders of the Afghanistan insurgency, Pakistani troops opened fire on their ostensible U.S. partners in September. Both Zardari and Kayani issued harsh statements denouncing violations of Pakistani sovereignty.

Yet some in Washington have whispered about the Pakistanis accepting a tacit modus vivendi — allowing U.S. missile strikes into the volatile tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

“The Pakistan-U.S., or Pakistan-NATO, military-to-military relationship along [the Afghanistan-Pakistan] border is, in many ways, significantly better than has been reported here in Washington,” said Markey, who recently toured U.S. military installations in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has “actually been able to coordinate fire with their Pakistani counterparts — that [U.S. commanders] have essentially gotten calls from the Pakistani side identifying militants who were getting ready to cross across the border; and that they have identified those with Pakistani help, and that they have called in fire from U.S. or NATO forces.”

Still, experts say the Obama administration will have to transform the U.S.-Pakistani relationship if Pakistan is to remain a stable ally in the war on terrorism while it confronts a growing insurgency at home. Under the Bush administration, relations with Pakistan centered on military ties and largely ignored the economy.

A new report from the liberal Center for American Progress — whose president, John Podesta, is heading the Obama transition team — argues for a fundamental restructuring of U.S.-Pakistani ties. “U.S. policy must recognize that the military component alone is insufficient to build stability and security in Pakistan,” the report states. It calls for “a diverse approach, including strengthening governance and rule of law, creating economic opportunities and exploring political negotiations” with militant groups.

While it’s by no means clear whether this week’s multiphased attacks in Mumbai involved Pakistani militant organizations, the attacks underscored the rising tide of militancy that threatens Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as India. On Friday, the Zardari government offered to dispatch Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of its powerful intelligence service, to assist India in investigating the attacks — a tacit recognition that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence was a natural suspect, given its long history of anti-India subterfuge.

To combat the rising instability, the still-coalescing Obama administration will have to make a number of hard choices in a rapidly changing environment. It’s possible that South Asia will be the first major foreign crisis the new administration confronts.

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