Obama during his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill, Washington. (AFP)
Washington, Feb. 13: Without mentioning India even once, President Barack Obama posed a huge foreign policy challenge before New Delhi in his State of the Union address last night.
His announcement that half of America’s troops in Afghanistan will be pulled out in the next 12 months “and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over” has heightened the urgency of India’s focus on Kabul with its attendant national security implications.
Even before Obama took to the rostrum on Capitol Hill to fulfil his mandated constitutional duty of informing the Congress of the State of the Union, the first 50 shipping containers of American military equipment from Afghanistan left the country last weekend as part of the drawdown.
The containers, significantly from New Delhi’s perspective, entered Pakistan from Kandahar through the Chaman border crossing in Baluchistan, a spokesman for the US military said. A second lot of 25 containers followed and the process will gather speed with Obama’s time table for withdrawal announced last night.
The arrangement puts Pakistan at the front and centre of the President’s promise in his first term, reiterated in his inaugural address last month, to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. “Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
The Americans have 66,000 troops now in Afghanistan and the process of pulling them out as well as US equipment stationed over a decade there will mean Pakistan will have a whip hand over the White House and the Pentagon.
Between November 2011 and July last year, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, showed how he would use that whip hand by closing this route for Nato supplies after an American air attack killed 24 Pakistani troops along its border with Afghanistan.
Islamabad reopened the route only after the Americans apologised for the deaths.
Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai said last week that the US has “shared very candidly their own plans for the future” of Afghanistan and tried to calm concerns in India that the Taliban, with support from the army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, will either take over Kabul after the American withdrawal or run Afghanistan on their terms.
In an interview with former ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan on a Malayalam television channel, Mathai revealed that an India-US dialogue on Afghanistan would be held shortly in which several agencies of the Indian government would take part.
He appeared to challenge Obama’s matter-of-fact assertion that “our war in Afghanistan will be over” by the end of next year when he said, obviously based on what Washington has shared with South Block, that the extent of US presence post-2014 is yet to be decided.
Based on these exchanges with the Americans, Mathai insisted that there is no reason to conclude that the American withdrawal would be destabilising for Afghanistan.
He expressed optimism over the course of an India-Afghanistan-US trilateral dialogue launched last September in New York and was confident that the capacity of Afghan national forces for self-defence was improving. However, he said: “Gaps on the intelligence side remain.”According to the foreign secretary, a complicating factor would be elections in Afghanistan in 2014 and the need to ensure a stable transition of power. But an encouraging factor was the “huge growth of civil society, the new forces which have been thrown up” that could stabilise the country.
For the Indian American community, it was comforting to hear the President remember a huge tragedy which affected them last year when a gunman killed six Sikhs at a gurdwara in Wisconsin. A police officer, Brian Murphy, who tackled the gunman without concern for his own safety was First Lady Michelle Obama’s guest at the State of Union address.
As television cameras focused on this hero, the President said: “We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy. When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he did not consider his own safety. He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshipping inside, even as he lay bleeding from 12 bullet wounds.”
Obama’s unhesitating embrace of these Sikhs as “Americans” will go some way with their community which has a slew of grievances that they are often racially profiled and discriminated against by US law enforcement and security personnel.
Obama went on: “When asked how he did that, Brian said: ‘That’s just the way we are made.’ We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It is a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we are made.”
The progressive lines which permeated Obama’s inauguration speech last month were taken forward in last night’s address. He asked Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to nine dollars an hour. Obama raised the minimum wage to $7.25 within six months of taking office in 2009.
In a turn of phrase that caught small government advocates among Republicans off guard, the President said: “It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
A spoiler was North Korea, which conducted a nuclear test on the morning of Obama’s speech. A paragraph was hastily added to the address at the eleventh hour. “The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”