Obama’s 0.03 percent priority for India

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 6th, 2012
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Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR

The 2012 Democratic Platform, the 40-page document released on Monday, can be regarded as United States President Barack Obama’s election manifesto in the November election. There is a lengthy portion set aside in it outlining the foreign-policy orientations of the second term of Obama in the White House, if he gets re-elected.

Of course, nothing binds Obama to this document and politicians invariably put on different apparel once they reach corridors of power and come under the compulsions of statecraft. Moreover, no American president can be really a foreign-policy candidate insofar as to quote the prominent Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the «parameters that shape [US’] strategy – the set of allies, enemies, problems and tools – don’t vary much from administration to administration. And neither does policy»…

However, this manifesto will always remain, especially at inconvenient moments, a benchmark of what Obama hopes to achieve in the coming 4 years, if given another chance. Part of the reason why the manifesto dwelt at such length on foreign policy could be to draw attention that unlike his Republican opponent Mitt Romney who has been accused of fuzziness or naivety when it comes to world politics – calling Russia a «geopolitical enemy» – Obama has a set world-view that is both comprehensive and purposive.

Nonetheless, the manifesto will be studied for clues on Obama’s foreign policy thinking and his priorities. From the Indian viewpoint, what sticks out is the cursory reference the manifesto makes about the US-Indian relationship and certain subtle deviations it makes regarding Washington’s expectations out of what it has touted in the past as one of the «defining partnerships of the 21st century». A clutch of some 33 words in a foreign-policy statement of some 9000 words is all that the manifesto devotes to the ties with India. It is a sobering thought – the 0.03 percent priority accorded to India.

The specific reference to India says, «we will continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor an provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region». That is to say, the US visualizes India in the long-term as a regional power in its region both in the economic and security spheres. There is no suggestion of any pre-eminence attributed to India as a South Asian power nor any echo of what the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said not too long ago, namely, that India is a «lynchpin» in the US’ entire Asia-Pacific strategy.

A combination of factors could have led to the US’ disappointment regarding India. Surely, New Delhi has failed to rise to the US’ high expectations although it identifies the US as vital partner for the long-term. The word «strategic» loses its resonance when it comes to India, which claims «strategic cooperation» with scores of countries, including such players like, say, Albania.

The point is, India cannot be an ally of the US. Nor is India willing to jettison its independent foreign policy. While the US expects India to cast off its legacy of non-alignment, the latter cannot be faulted in seeing the international situation actually favoring – even demanding – continued adherence to the principles of non-alignment (although not in the fashion in which Iran probably hopes to define them).

Pivotal theme

The core issue is China. Simply put, India is insure of a convergence of interests with the US and would rather pursue its normalization with China in its own way. The high-flown ideas that the US pundits propagates about the two countries embarking on enterprises such as safeguarding what the Americans call the «global commons» – world’s oceans, enviornment, cyberspace, outer space, et al – do not impress the Indian policymakers who are conscious of India’s limitations in punching above its weight. Recently, the outgoing chief of the Indian navy did some plain speaking, publicly dismissive of the scope for any Indian pro-activism in the troubled waters of the South China Sea.

Thus, Obama administration has judiciously put the «defining partnership» with India on hold. The 2014 general elections in India promise to be a watershed event and the US will probably take a good look at what is there in it for the strategic partnership between the two countries. Again, Obama’s enthusiasm has been more than a bit doused now that it is clear that the Indian government has «reset» the political priorities of its economic policy in the crucial countdown to the 2014 election, and may not therefore open up the Indian market the way US has been pressing for. In short, Obama doesn’t see dramatic opportunities in the Indian market for the US’ exports that could create new job opportunities back home in America.

From the Indian perspective, it faces genuine difficulty to go along with the US-style manipulation of the Arab Spring for ostensibly pushing democratic power in the Middle East. There are differences over Syria and Iran. When it comes to Afghanistan, India cannot be foolhardy to overlook that the US’ long-term military presence and the need to keep substantial forces in Afghanistan will remain heavily predicated on Pakistan’s cooperation, which in turn will continue to create leverage for Islamabad on US policy if for no reason other than the US forces’ transit routes lie through Pakistan.

Equally, the next general elections in Pakistan are highly likely to bring to power in Islamabad a government that will be far more assertive vis-à-vis the US, which leaves Washington no choice but to stick to the good old policy of buying off the Pakistani military instead of strengthening the country’s civilian institutions.

Unsurprisingly, the pivotal theme of the 2012 Democratic Platform is Obama’s success in «responsibly ending» the US’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, «Today, all of those [US] forces are out of Iraq, and there are no American bases there either». The US remains committed to move forward and build a «robust, long-term strategic partnership with a sovereign, united, and democratic Iraq in all fields… based on mutual interests and mutual respect». There is no trace of any undue hype here, but a tacit acknowledgement of the limits of the US’ influence in Baghdad.

However, the manifesto sidetracks the main question: What was the war all about? The final objective of the Iraq war comes to be, ironically, that Obama succeeded in «responsibly» ending it. It is a pathetic admission of defeat of the enterprise the US embarked upon in 2003 when it invaded Iraq.

Whereas, in the case of Afghan war, outright claims of victory have been made because it is today Obama’s war. The manifesto highlights that Obama «shifted away» from the George W. Bush administration’s «sweeping and internationally-divisive rhetoric of a ‘global war on terrorism’ to a more focused effort against an identifiable network of people: al-Qaeda and its affiliates». The result, it claims, are impressive: Osma bin Laden has been decapitated; al-Qaeda leadership has been «devastated» and rendered «far less capable» (although the organization and its affiliates «remain active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere»); the «surge» has reversed the Taliban’s «momentum»; and the «process of bringing our troops home» has begun.

Bite the bullet

But this is an evasive account. All the achievements it claims – except the ongoing drawdown of US troops – are highly debatable one way or another. There is prevarication regarding the Taliban’s continuing challenge, the scope of any peace process, the capability of the Afghan armed forces to assume the responsibility for security, the durability of the Afghan state structures as a whole or the resilience and viability of its economy and even as regards the US’ long-term intentions.

The operative portion is as follows: «Beyond 2014, we will continue to provide counterterrorism and training assistance and to build an enduring relationship with Afghanistan… But we will not build permanent bases in Afghanistan». One cannot but deduce that US combat troops will remain in Afghanistan for a long time and operate out of the recently renovated and refurbished military bases such as Bagram or Shindand without having to build new bases.

There is a threatening tone in the reference made to Pakistan, which is all in the context of «responsibly ending» the Afghan war. It is hinted that although the US respects Pakistan’s sovereignty and its democratic institutions, «our [US’] interest is in putting an end to al-Qaeda’s safe havens and respecting Afghan sovereignty». By the way, Washington Post newspaper featured a sensational report on Monday that the Obama administration is pondering over designating the Pakistan-based Haqqani network as a terrorist group. The report cited the US commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen demanding that he «needs more tools» to fight the Haqqanis and asked specifically for their designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization as «one of the most important steps the administration could take to win the war».

At the very outset, the 2012 Democratic Platform acknowledges that the primary focus of Obama’s second term will be on «responsibly ending» the Afghan war. This is vital to the US’ global strategy. As the 40-page document admits, the entire rebalancing of the US foreign policy orientated to a «long-overdue focus» on the «rising influence» of the «world’s most dynamic regions» will depend on the ease with which the US extricates itself from the Afghan war. But this isn’t going to be an easy journey. The manifesto implicitly underscores that the US-Pakistan relationship remains a deeply troubled one. The ground reality is that things are not looking positive in Afghanistan. On top of it all, the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan may prove to be so highly divisive that the entire situation could begin to unravel.

It may be within the Taliban’s capacity to take over large areas of the southern and eastern regions, but they lack the capacity to extend their reach to the north and west of the country or for an outright takeover of major cities such as Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, leave alone Kabul. On the other hand, the peace track is at a standstill – that is, assuming anything more than initial contacts and baby steps to create mutual confidence have been made so far – and any genuine talks or negotiations will have to wait till 2013 when the new US administration would have settled in.

But the catch is that the latest cabinet appointments by President Hamid Karzai to the key posts of defence minister, intelligence chief and interior minister would strongly suggest that no one in Kabul is terribly interested in reaching an accommodation with the Taliban, although there could be an overall aversion to any return to the civil-war conditions of the 1990s. Therefore, a reasonable way of «responsibly ending» the Afghan war probably lies in a settlement that allows Afghanistan to regain its status as a neutral country with no foreign bases for anybody. Will Obama bite the bullet? That’s the big question the 2012 Democratic Platform shies away from.

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