South Asian Dialectic

Obama’s New Strategy towards the Islamic State: Implications for India

15 Sep, 2014    ·   4659

PR Chari presents three implications of new Obama strategy towards the Middle East

In his widely anticipated 15th anniversary address on the  9/11 attacks, President Obama has clarified his  objectives in the Middle East: “We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [the Islamic State] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” 
Its contours are taking shape, but the new strategy would involve airstrikes against militants and training the moderate opposition fighters in Syria. The US will wage war against the Islamic extremists and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Wary of domestic opposition to getting mired in another overseas conflict after Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama emphasized that he would seek Congressional approval and international support from America’s Middle East and NATO allies. 
Could American air power and the ground forces of its partners destroy the Islamic State? There is enough realism around to appreciate that al Qaeda, ISIS and similar extremist organizations propagate beguiling ideals of equality, freedom, religious purity and so on to confront the Western alliance, headed by the United States. It is difficult to defeat an ideal, but its baneful effects can certainly be contained. This understanding, is currently informing Obama’s rejuvenated counter-insurgency strategy premised on assured domestic support and the cooperation of allies, but restricting military action to airstrikes and leaving ground action to allies.  
Only a modest augmentation of US troops in Iraq is envisaged, raising their total number to around 1500 for performing advisory functions by manning tactical operations centers, protecting American personnel and helping local security forces. An important, though unstated, component of this revised strategy is human intelligence to pinpoint the location of individual militant leaders for elimination by air and ground action. Jordan is critical here.
The new Obama strategy envisages training the Free Syrian Army. Saudi Arabia has apparently agreed to provide facilities in its territory for their training and turning them turned around to combat the Islamic extremists and the Assad regime. The dangers of this radical policy are two-fold. First, the US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia, would be getting embroiled in an enlarging Shia- Sunni sectarian conflict, with the lines of division getting increasingly blurred. Thus Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States are becoming uneasy partners to confront the ISIS and al Qaeda. But, Iran, alongside remnants of the Iraqi and Assad regime still feel obligated to support Hamas against Israel. How Obama’s revised Middle East strategy will sidestep these land mines of Middle East politics remains to be seen.
So, what do these developments signify for India? 
First, Obama’s 9/11 strategy is designed to ensure the continued American presence in the Middle East; its vestigial continuance would, hopefully, protect US national interests. It can similarly be adduced that the US will not leave Afghanistan altogether after 2014, but elements will remain in Bagram and other secure bases to enable air- and drone-strikes against identified militant forces. Air-strikes do not win wars, but they can seriously degrade the morale of rebel forces and weaken them by decapitating their leadership. It would be in India’s interests to support the US presence in Afghanistan, especially with the al Qaeda threatening to turn its attention against India. A dialogue with the US to firm up greater cooperation in this regard is called for. 
Second, it has been wryly observed that one assured supply source for ready weapons in ISIS’s brutal efforts to overrun Iraq and Syria is the US taxpayer. Significant numbers of semi-automatic rifles have been captured by ISIS from military stockpiles in Iraq and Syria, apart from heavier weapons like anti-tank HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) and shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets that can destroy armored vehicles. Much the same situation might arise in Afghanistan after the departure of US and ISAF forces. According to reports significant numbers of vehicles, small arms and ammunition will be left behind as they are prohibitively costly to ship back to the United States. Much of this materiel might find its way into India via terrorist groups operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, but with interests in Kashmir. How this menace should be thwarted requires urgent consultations with the United States.
Third, the growth of sectarianism in the Middle East crisis should concern India. Extremists in the Middle East have targeted Christians and other ethnic minorities, but also rival schisms within Islam.  The Shia-Sunni divide has become corrosive, which is also excoriating South Asia, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also India. This rapid growth in sectarianism has to be guarded against, especially with the coming into power in New Delhi of a political party with militant Hindu roots. Concerns here are not ill-founded.
Obama’s newly minted Middle East policy will therefore have  much wider repercussions, including the US pivot towards Asia that concerns India; further developments here will require India’s vigilant attention.