Vacating Afghanistan

India will need to track US attempts to appease Rawalpindi on the way out

In announcing a schedule for ending America's longest foreign war ever in Afghanistan by 2014, US President Barack Obama has found a balance between competing imperatives. In 2009, Obama had declared that America's occupation of Afghanistan was "a war of necessity" in contrast to the disastrous "war of choice in Iraq". He ordered a massive surge in American military presence to launch a counter-insurgency campaign to help Afghanistan secure itself. Since then, Obama appears to have convinced himself that the counter-insurgency campaign is unlikely to work and shifted focus to the more limited objective of counter-terrorism — defeating the al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

The liberal opinion at home, especially in his own Democratic Party, has been demanding a rapid military retreat from Afghanistan, and much of it within this year itself. The military leaders, on the other hand, insist that a precipitous withdrawal would undo most of the gains made since the US intervened in Afghanistan at the end of 2001. They have pressed Obama to leave a sizeable force until the very end of 2014, to assist the Afghan armed forces to stand up on their own and compel the Taliban to accept reasonable terms of reconciliation.

In his annual state of the union address to the US Congress on Tuesday night, Obama adopted the middle path. He announced that 34,000 American troops — out of the current strength of about 66,000 — would come home by February 2014. He said the US troops would switch to the training role in the next couple of months and that the war would come to an end by the end of next year. While not disappointing the liberals at home, Obama is leaving a reasonably large force in Afghanistan for the current fighting season and there will be enough troops to help ensure peace during the elections scheduled for 2014. From India's perspective, though, Obama's war in Afghanistan might not be won or lost by the size of the military force there. It would depend on Washington's readiness to apply serious pressure on the Pakistan army to stop promoting the Taliban and other extremist groups. Few in Delhi are ready to bet that Washington will not be tempted to appease Rawalpindi in its hurry to leave Afghanistan.

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