BY SAEED NAQVI

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address to the US Congress begins with America’s recent military engagement in self congratulatory terms. Among the more modest claims is: “For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country”.

The speech ends with a graphic account of the SEAL Team’s mission “to get bin Laden”. He says “one of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission”.

Between these extended bits of military triumphalism, are other substantive themes that will play themselves out in great detail upto the Presidential election in November 2012.

Part of the choreography being structured for the campaign is the conference on Afghanistan due in May in Chicago, with NATO seated on the front benches along with others including all those present at the first Bonn conference. In his speech Obama talked of the 10,000 troops who have already returned. He then said that “23,000 more will leave by the end of summer”.

The Chicago conference will be in the Spring. The 23,000 US troops will not have left Afghanistan by then. That will happen only by the “end of summer”, say August or September, weeks short of polling day. If troops can really be brought back by then, the resultant photo ops can be given a favourable spin. Some sort of success can be projected.

Between the announcement of the exact date of the next phase of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the actual departure of troops, there can always be a hitch which will enable departure to be delayed beyond November 5, leaving the next administration to devise a more plausible policy for Afghanistan or for that hyphenated Af-Pak region. That expression has been gradually shed as Richard Holbrooke recedes from memory.

I suppose it is the prerogative of the powerful to blandish daily improvisations as carefully crafted, deeply thought out foreign policy. Put it down to my inadequate grasp of events, but in recent years I have not been able to spot anything resembling policy towards Af-Pak.

Remember when Peter Galbraith was posted to Kabul as Holbrooke’s sidekick? Soon after Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s re-election in August 2009 he packed up and left because the elections had been “rigged”.

Those were the days when every visiting American journalist, briefed either at Bagram or the US’s Kabul embassy, described Karzai as something less than the Mayor of Kabul, one who could not even step out of the Palace.

Then came General Stanley McChrystal who was disarmingly blunt: India’s socio-economic development work in Afghanistan “creates complications and distracts Pakistan from its war on terror”. This is what I was told in Kabul.

Was this derived from some policy? If so, how do I square it with well placed Americans in Islamabad, during that period, fairly vocal about the Pak army playing “both sides of the street” in their war on terror?

One has lived so long with the absence of a coherent US policy in the region, that the frenetic activity between Washington, Kabul, Islamabad and now Qatar cannot by any stretch of imagination be seen as part of a deep design. It smacks of yet another improvisation.

The limited short term objective is to prepare a script for Chicago where “success” in Afghanistan can be credibly “promised”. Success cannot be “announced” because “success” cannot happen in a short time frame.

What is the implication of this Qatar digression?

Have the Taliban, a “nightmare” of the 1990s, been transformed into harbingers of a sparkling new dawn for Afghanistan, by the sheer passage of time?

In the 90s, Holbrooke and friends were passing through New Delhi. US ambassador Frank Wisner held a dinner for the group before escorting them to Bhutan for a holiday. By a coincidence, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour happened to be in Kabul. Her powerful reportage of the Taliban’s harsh treatment of women changed Washington’s policy so abruptly that, just then, Holbrooke received a call from the White House on this subject. He returned to the group shaking his head. “Washington is unhappy with the way Afghan women are being treated.” Someone in the group succinctly observed: “Afghan policy has now got embroiled in US gender politics.” Another improvisation was affected. The policy was changed. Facilitators of an American hydrocarbon pipeline through Afghanistan became pariahs overnight.

Will the Taliban this time sign statements on oath that they will be kind to their women?

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)