EDITORIAL: Obama’s State of the Union address

In his State of the Union address, President Obama observed about al Qaeda, “Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe havens are shrinking.” President Obama revealed more in not mentioning the Taliban than in making a mention of al Qaeda. In doing so, he has left open a chink for negotiations with the Taliban, with whom the US and NATO forces are fighting in Afghanistan for the last nine year. However, there are serious differences of opinions within the Obama administration on how to engage with the Taliban. The debate on military priorities in Afghanistan, whether it should be counter-terrorism, going directly after the terrorists, or counter-insurgency, strengthening state institutions and the government’s capacity to deliver, continues. US Vice President Joe Biden is known to favour counter-terrorism over counter-insurgency, whose costs are stupendous and results not guaranteed. General Petraeus is currently following the plan to first weaken the Taliban through a troops surge before meeting them on the negotiating table, where they would, supposedly, be more compliant.

The Taliban are deeply entrenched in Afghan society and the US has learnt during its presence in Afghanistan since 9/11 that eliminating or even uprooting them is simply not possible. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that President Obama has chosen to emphasise on al Qaeda, not the weakening of the Taliban, leaving the door open for political engagement with the Taliban. In a way, it makes sense because it was al Qaeda, not the Taliban, who were responsible for 9/11 and sundry other terrorist attacks internationally. Nevertheless, there are major challenges in the way of a full-blown dialogue with the Taliban. There is no unified view within the US administration on this issue, which tends to weaken the political will to do so. Also, it is not clear how the Taliban are going to respond to these overtures. There are moves afoot behind the curtain involving Europeans and some Gulf countries. Lately, the Taliban have floated the idea of giving them a foothold in a neutral country, e.g. in Turkey, because they do not want to be controlled or influenced by Pakistan’s intelligence outfit ISI during the negotiations process. It may sound a reasonable demand from their point of view, given that they have been involved in a fierce guerrilla struggle since their dislodging from power, and do have not a stable footing within Afghanistan. But it may take a while before the US decision makers come round to the idea of giving such a benefit to their adversaries.

Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network, which is suspected to have given it sanctuary in North Waziristan to maintain influence in Afghanistan, is an open secret. What is alarming, though, is that the head honchos of the network seem to be losing control over the young hotheads, which are defying the older generation. The recent news of the death of Taliban godfather Colonel Imam while he was in the custody of the Asian Tigers is an example of splinters within the Taliban. It is time for Pakistan too to take stock of the situation and review its own strategy.

At this point, whatever President Obama decides — to gradually reduce the US presence in Afghanistan according to the plan or keep up the present state of involvement in near future — will have a serious impact on the upcoming US presidential election in 2013. Although President Obama has turned the corner on domestic issues, the big question remains: is the electorate ready to continue the campaign in Afghanistan or not. – Daily Times