As the United States moves to its next presidential election, with incumbent Barack Obama seeking a second term, it has two, or in many ways, twin problems to tackle: the rise of China and Pakistan’s continued ambivalence and promotion of various militant groups against the US and NATO forces as they execute their announced withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Obama sought to tackle the China factor during his last month’s visit to East Asia Summit and his whirlwind tour of Southeast and East Asia. China expectedly responded by warning Australia, and anyone else in the region that might want to align militarily with the US, that they would be getting into crossfire.
China’s message equally goes to India that is consolidating ties with the US, expressedly indicating its preference for the US and NATO continuing their presence in Afghanistan longer and signing with President Hamid Karzai the strategic partnership agreement (SPA). In this direction, India has just lost a very big ally.
Russia has said it wants the US and NATO to keep the time table and leave Afghanistan and Central Asia. The differences emerged when External Affairs Minister SM Krishna was in Moscow, preparatory to the winter summit between the prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Vladimir Putin.
The emerging situation is one of each player indicating his preferences clearly. Russia would not want the western presence indefinitely in Afghanistan and in Central Asia that was its backyard earlier. It also knows that the western presence is aimed at containing not just Moscow, but more than Moscow, Beijing. Russia would rather align with China that also wants US and NATO to quit the region.
And in this, the anti-west stand of Iran, India’s one-time ally on Afghanistan, is well known. All of them have expressed alarm at the US’ known intention to keep a significant presence in Afghanistan. While the US is unlikely to oblige them, its war-weariness is becoming more discernible than ever.
So, in the realigned positions, India and the US go together, while Russia, China and Iran take up identical positions. This is a position that broadly suites Pakistan, although there is little doubt that Russia, China, Iran would like to see Pakistan curb its militants and export of terrorism.
The ground reality favours this new grouping as the US and NATO work on their withdrawal from Afghanistan -- a prime point with India. Pakistan knows this very well and is ready, as India had pointed to the US earlier, to 'sit out' the US and NATO quitting Afghanistan.
Should the US have announced its time table to quit Afghanistan? Serious questions are being raised. The American lawmakers are getting increasingly angry with the role Pakistan is playing. Let it be said clearly: their anger is not so much for the Afghan people. It is for the impunity with which the Pakistan-trained and sheltered militants are targeting US and NATO forces on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border --- using American funds.
The Americans are realizing that while they have certainly scored some hits, and they have located and killed Osama bin Laden and are continuing to target Al Qaida and Taliban fighters with their drones, the ground reality has not changed significantly.
Indeed, if they are to score a victory, the surge of the Obama administration should have resulted in weakening the Taliban into coming to the negotiation table. On the contrary, the Taliban are defiant and worse --- all moves at reconciliation between Karzai’s regime and Taliban have failed so far. The livid American lawmakers are listening to some sane voices, but this may be too late in the day.