May 25, 2012

The Story from Chicago

The following article originally appeared in The Indian Express on May 25, 2012. 

There were few surprises emerging from the Chicago NATO summit, held between May 20-21, where the agenda focused on setting Afghanistan on a path to security self-reliance and on burden-sharing between the United States and its European allies amid looming budget cuts.

The summit clarified NATO’s intentions of handing over responsibility for the security of Afghanistan to the Afghan National Security Forces by 2013 and terminating all combat operations by 2014. But contrary to the belief in many quarters, the timeline did nothing to obscure the very real security challenges that remain in Afghanistan. US President Barack Obama acknowledged that any gains made on the ground by NATO forces were “fragile,” and that challenges on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line were yet to be dealt with. Even after 2014, the US and its allies are expected to continue investing resources in a bid to secure the country. Their support will include approximately $4.1 billion each year for Afghanistan’s security forces, and as many as 15,000-20,000 US and NATO troops in support roles ranging from artillery and air support to medical assistance and logistics.

Meanwhile, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari — whose participation was the subject of considerable speculation in the run-up to the summit — is leaving Chicago disappointed and empty handed, without an agreement on NATO supply lines to Afghanistan, a one-on-one meeting with Obama or an apology for last year’s US air strike, which killed several Pakistani soldiers. While some see the rebuke as unnecessary humiliation of a civilian government in Islamabad that is just beginning to assert itself, the episode also demonstrates the limitations of Pakistan’s platform for negotiation. By staking its legitimacy on a single, impossible proposition — a public apology from a US president facing re-election, for an action whose provocations were at best disputable — Pakistan’s government had only itself to blame for painting itself into a corner.

This strain in diplomatic ties between the US and Pakistan stood in stark contrast to the friendliness and apparent relief with which Obama engaged his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, their meeting coming not long after the conclusion of a strategic partnership agreement. Bonhomie between leaders should never be over-interpreted but, if genuine and durable, this could mark the end of a difficult period in relations between Washington and Kabul, during which Karzai had made several demands on the US military and political leadership that the White House and the Pentagon deemed impossible. As progress in Afghanistan depends on the relationship between Washington and Kabul, the shift in tenor is a welcome sign.

The other narrative emanating from Chicago involved negotiations about the nature and role of the NATO alliance, which faces uncertainty at a time of expected defence budget cuts on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, this means reconciling the demands of expanded membership, the decline of traditional security threats, the changing nature of collective defence and ownership of security with today’s sobering fiscal realities. NATO’s latest answer to this conundrum is “Smart Defence”, which — despite its name — essentially translates into pooling resources to provide military capabilities at lower costs, often by eliminating redundancies. However, the new principle threatens to limit NATO’s relevance to regional security in Europe and the North Atlantic, rather than allow the alliance to position itself at the centre of a global security architecture. For an organisation whose member states are collectively responsible for over two-thirds of global defence spending, this bar appears rather low.

NATO may appear a declining force — and it has always been constrained as a policymaking body, subject to the whims of its member states — but the absence of any structured engagement or dialogue with India is nonetheless striking. The alliance operates a counter-piracy task force in the Indian Ocean, it is involved in ambitious ballistic missile defence plans, and it plans on retaining its presence in Afghanistan in some shape or form for the foreseeable future.

India, for its part, continues to constrain itself by its aversion to NATO’s Cold War legacy. This is self-defeating as other countries — including Russia and, in particular, China — are beginning to sense opportunities, despite seemingly greater obstacles for dialogue and collaboration. NATO today holds regular working-level meetings with the Chinese military in Beijing, and Chinese officers now study in NATO academies. Given that the alliance was built on principles and values that its members ostensibly share with India, there are no reasons why India’s defence establishment should not be considering similar opportunities for interaction. India is certainly not interested in a formal partnership, but shared interests and realms of activity — whether in Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, or in various technological pursuits — lend themselves, at the very least, to an agenda for consultations and dialogue.