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The eagle has landed in Central Asia

Friday 4 May 2012

The signing of the US-Afghan strategic pact by presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai is undoubtedly a landmark event in regional security. A long-term American military presence in the region has become a compelling reality for all countries neighboring Afghanistan. Obama has scattered all skepticism about the US’ resolve to remain committed in the region’s security. The shadow of the US presence will fall on the Central Asian steppes and may well thwart Vladimir Putin’s Eurasia Union project. China has to contend with thousands of American troops on the borders of Xinjiang.

The White House fact sheet on the pact confirms an “enduring US presence in Afghanistan” and maintains that there will be no “permanent [US] military bases”. But it is a matter of semantics, since Kabul is “committed to provide US personnel access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014 and beyond”. We all would know that the Afghans have hardly any control over the bases where the US troops and war equipment are located.

The fact sheet confirms in essence that US combat troops and special forces, etc. will remain in Afghanistan. A Bilateral Security Agreement ( read status of forces agreement) will be concluded in an year’s time. Interestingly, the US will regard Afghanistan as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ so that it becomes a relationship based on a “long-term framework of security and defence cooperation.”

The US has done well to sign the pact swiftly within a week or so of its initialing by the negotiators. The risk was always there of a miss between the cup and the lip, as the Iraq experience would tell. The Afghan situation is volatile, Karzai is a mercurial personality and there are regional powers who would do their damnest to scuttle the pact.

Paradoxically, the recent Taliban attacks on Kabul may have created a climate of opinion within Afghanistan favoring continued US military presence. The Afghan parliament is expected to ratify the pact as early as next week.

The regional powers too have fallen silent. Iran is preparing for the talks in Baghdad on May 23 with the P5+1. Russia is busy with the transition in the Kremlin. China never voices any public opinions on US military bases in Afghanistan, while India is a silent votary of long-term US military presence in the region as a guarantor-cum-provider of security for Afghanistan.

The big question is about Pakistan’s attitude. Technically, this is a matter between the US and Pakistan, which are sovereign countries. But Pakistan has to factor in extraneous considerations — Taliban’s visceral opposition (at least, in public) to the US presence; domestic opinion within Pakistan; long-term US intentions toward Pakistan; limits to Pakistan’s influence over the power structure in Kabul, etc.

But to my mind, Pakistan will learn to live with the long-term military presence in Afghanistan, and may even seek to turn it to its advantage. The military leadership in Rawalpindi will certainly know the futility of a confrontation with the US and would extract advantages out of the US’ long-term heavy dependence on transit routes through Pakistan. Conceivably, continued US engagement in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan also helps divert Taliban militancy away from Pakistan. In short, it is crunch time for Pakistan to decide what sort of Afghanistan it desires as neighbor.

There are silver linings. The point is, the ice has been broken in the US-Pakistan standoff. The protagonists are old hands at dealing with each other and they know they can’t do without each other on the Afghan chessboard. Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani will have another meeting with Obama in Chicago during the NATO summit, which will more or less clear the air for the reset of the US-Pak ties. In sum, Pakistan will bend with the wind — and the wind is blowing in favor of Obama. Read my article in Asia Times titled ‘Obama has an Afghan game plan’.

By M K Bhadrakumar – May 3, 2012

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