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America's New Embassy in Islamabad

US plans for the $1 billion upgrade of their Islamabad embassy are taking shape.  The plans include investments of about $405 million in reconstruction of the main embassy building and $111 million for a housing complex for additional personnel.  The US has already purchased 18 acres of land from the Pakistan government for additional accommodation for diplomatic personnel.

This plan to increase US presence in Pakistan was first announced in May 2009, to complement Obama’s Af-Pak strategy.  The plan also calls for a significant increase in the number of personnel (by about 1,000), and includes the deployment of 350 marines and several armored personnel carriers.

The slow but steady increase in US boots-on-the-ground provides the Americans the ability to carry out COIN and covert operations in NWFP, FATA and Baluchistan with or without direct assistance from the Pakistani army and the ISI.  Clearly, the frustration of being encumbered by a double-talking “ally ” has translated into the US adopting a more operational role in the border regions of Pakistan and beyond.  Indeed, there are reports of significant US muscle power already present in the Tarbela area (about 20 miles NW of Islamabad), in addition to CIA “facilities” in Karachi and Peshawar, and Predator drones operating out of Shamsi airbase.

While there may be question marks over the exact role of US marines in Pakistan, they are clearly there as a result of Pakistani government assent — whether provided voluntary or under compulsion.  Boots-on-the-ground provides the US the flexibility to operate with enough independence to pick and choose targets for engagement, while leaving some of the “dirty work” to the Pakistani army.

It also ties in with the overall strategy of negotiating with the so-called “moderate” Taliban, while targeting those Talibani elements not willing to be bought over. In this regard, the return of Robin Raphel to the neighborhood may not be coincidental. Who better to deal with the Taliban than their most vocal cheerleader? (via The Acorn)

As expected, this hasn’t gone down well with the Pakistani media.  Never one to pass up an opportunity to fume over all things India or US related, Shireen Mazari takes her government to task for kowtowing America’s line.  She argues:

It now transpires that there are already 300 plus US military personnel in this area – the so-called “trainers”. Of course, given the poor counter insurgency record of the US, heaven knows what training they will impart to our much better trained army!

Of course, one could point out that for all the bravado and chest-thumping, the Pakistani army has nothing to show for its COIN efforts in Swat, that the Swati leadership is still intact, and that as was last known, the Radio Mullah had resumed his FM-based sermons, but the concepts of “fact” and “logic” are largely irrelevant in Mazari’s writing.

Meanwhile, the August 3 editorial of The Dawn disapproves of the increasing US presence and asks whether such a move would “endear” the US to Pakistani civilians.  The editorial sees the development as being part of US’s contingency plans of taking control of Pakistan’s nukes, in the event of a meltdown of the state.  It points out that the Americans operated a similar base out of Tehran during the Shah’s rule, and asks, with tongue-in-cheek, whether such a base wouldn’t be more suitable if it were to operate out of capitals in the region that were friendly to Washington, such as Kabul or New Delhi.

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Where do we go from here?

The people of India have spoken.  A clear mandate for the UPA government has been given.  While this blogger doesn’t consider the verdict to be optimal (considering UPA’s unforgivable lapses in security and foreign affairs), the decisiveness of the victory is pleasing because it allows a less fractious Central government to go about its business.  The mandate against the BJP is very clear — the people don’t want any part of their divisive politics.  A campaign that was overshadowed by the venom spewing bigotry of Varun Gandhi was only bound for failure.  Uttar Pradesh has told Mayawati what it thinks of her self glorifying statues in Lucknow.   And Prakash Karat stands amidst the shattered pieces of his non-ideology.

Where does India go from here?  The Filter Coffee has repeatedly drawn attention to the dilapidated state of our local law enforcement forces, and national and border defense mechanisms.  They need addressing immediately.  When Chidambaram took over as Home Minister, he instituted a few changes, come cosmetic, some concrete.

The Congress must stop pretending that it is tied at the hip to the Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Act and work with the Opposition to construct a meaningful anti-terror law for the nation.  Our local law enforcement agencies need money, equipment and training.  Our national forces face severe shortages in equipment, which can only be addressed by correcting India’s defense procurement mechanism.  The shackles need to be loosened from our intelligence agencies.

India faces two immediate threats with regard to terrorism, from the Maoists and Jihadi groups.  With regard to external Jihadi threats, there are some elements that India can control and some that it can’t.  However, the Maoist menace is well within India’s realm and decisive action is needed to eliminate this plague that has consumed a third of India.

On the foreign affairs side, the Subcontinent is on fire.  Sri Lanka has found itself an effective counterweight to India in China, and its dismissal of India’s pleas was the most telling aspect of this relationship as war against the LTTE drew to a close.  Similarly, India lost the plot in Nepal during the UPA administration and as tensions continue to rise between the army and the Chinese backed Maoist government, India has a great opportunity to play the honest broker and demonstrate to that nation that India wants peace and stability in Nepal.

The United States is blowing a sigh of relief that the month long elections in India are at an end.  Obama’s immediate concern is to get India to focus on the Af-Pak issue.  The repeated calls for India to reduce troop levels along the western border are as absurd as they are misplaced and the UPA would do well not to wilt under American pressure as they have so often done in the past.

With Pakistan, India must continue to use every tool at its disposal to pressure that country to dismantle not just “terror” infrastructure, but specifically the Punjabi-terror outfits that target India.  The Pakistanis must be pressed to ensure that those responsible for 26/11 are brought to justice.  Pakistan’s “investigation”, as farcical as it was, is now a casualty of all the attention to the existential threat that country faces today.  Above all, the UPA must impress upon Islamabad that for India to show any interest in rekindling the “peace process”, there needs to be very credible action from Pakistan on both dismantling terror infrastructure armed at India, and bringing to justice those that were responsible for 26/11.

The mandate for the Congress is conclusive.  Manmohan Singh can either show the country that he can act convincingly to address the challenges that face us, as he did in 1991, or he can falter and stumble from one embarrassing embroilment to another as he has done over the past five years.  The ball is in his court.  What’s it going to be, Mr. Prime Minister?

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Obama's Af-Pak Strategy

US President Barack Obama revealed the much anticipated “Af-Pak” strategy today in Washington.  The text of the speech is certainly more candid than previous Bush-era speeches.  But how different is this strategy really to what has already been tried and tested?

“So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.”

Notice how the “clear and focused” goal makes no mention of the Taliban.  The goal now appears to be to aggressively pursue and incapacitate al Qaeda in the region.  On the face of it, rendering al Qaeda inoperable is no different from GWB’s own strategy; the one difference now is that the US has “boots on the ground” and is far less reliant on assistance  from the ISI.  Why wasn’t the Taliban mentioned? Well, because it gives the United States enough wiggle-room to play the “divide and conquer” game that the West has played so well in Asia and Africa:  i.e., play the  “good” Taliban against the “bad” Taliban.  Pit Mullah Omar against Baitullah Mehsud.  And Baitullah Mehsud against Maulana Fazlullah.  This strategy is going to be challenged in the coming weeks, as Mullah Omar and Mehsud appear to have patched up their differences, as reported in The New York Times.

The plan to go after al Qaeda and the “bad” Taliban without prior Pakistani consent was implemented in November 2008 and will continue to be part of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy.  The added goal of holding Pakistan accountable to action reflects Washington’s exasperation with Pakistan’s double handed game, something that India knows all too well. The United States’ strategy towards Pakistan will basically include:

  • Extending non-military aid by way of the Kerry-Lugar bill ($1.5 billion) and through other international fora.  A bad idea, as the lack of transparency in the dissemination of funds invariably results in Pakistan using the money to arm itself against India, or grease politicians’ pockets;
  • Pressuring India to take the initiative in restarting the “peace process” with Pakistan;
  • Working with Gen. Kayani on coordinating attacks in NWFP and Baluchistan, while paying lip-service to the civil government and democracy.

In Afghanistan, Obama will deploy an additional 17,000 troops to counter the insurgency, particularly in Helmand province, where the British have been taking heavy fire.  In addition, there will be another 4,000 troops designated to train Afghani security forces to counter the “uncompromising core of the Taliban”, basically the Taliban who refuse to be bought by the US.

The forging of the “Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan”, whose members include the US, several Arab states, Central Asian republics, Russia, China, Iran and India shows a shift from the NATO/”coalition of the willing” dominated mandate of GWB’s policies.  How effective this new contact group will be will remain to be seen, but there now appears to be a realization in Washington that the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be decided without consensus from regional powers like Iran and India.  In the past, because of Washington’s allergy to Iran, the Islamic republic was never consulted on Afghanistan.  Similarly, because of Pakistan’s objections, India was never consulted on either Pakistan or Afghanistan.  The thinking has clearly changed.

However, the gaping hole in the Af-Pak strategy is the exclusion of Punjabi terror outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayiba.  These groups present a clear and direct threat to Washington’s goal of strengthening civilian government in Pakistan and to security in India.  Whether because they were blind sighted by the situation in NWFP (unlikely) or because of Pakistan’s insistence, these groups were not included as part of the Obama administration’s strategy.  The exclusion of these groups in the US’s Af-Pak strategy is a perpetuation of the fallacies of the Bush era.

Which brings me back to my original question — what is Obama’s real objective in Af-Pak? Is it to keep things relatively quiet in Pakistan for a period of time to allow the US to affect a less than ignominious exit from Afghanistan?  Or is it to comprehensively engage with the Pakistanis to eradicate terrorism from the region and build a credible and stable civilian government?  If it is the latter, it cannot be achieved without Washington’s committment to act against terror groups that operate in heartland Pakistan.  Despite utterances to the contrary, the US’s strategy seems to betray an intention to use and dispose of Pakistan, much like it did after the Soviet-Afghan war.  An “Af-Pak” strategy is fine.  But the question on Indian security analysts’ minds will be: “To what end?”

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