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Monday, April 15, 2024

U.S. Policy in South Asia: Imperatives and Challenges

By Michael Kugelman |


Sustained bilateral and multilateral U.S. engagement in South Asia is of the essence. Three major factors amplify the importance of placing South Asia on the crowded front burner of U.S. foreign policy priorities: Threats to stability emanating from the region, the overall strategic significance of South Asia, and several notable geopolitical shifts. These shifts are the U.S. combat withdrawal from Afghanistan, an accelerating American rebalance to Asia, and resilient and expanding global terrorist networks.

At the same time, sustained engagement presents policy challenges for Washington. These include addressing definitional disagreements with India about what should constitute a strategic relationship, crafting a proper policy for engaging Bangladesh in that country’s highly fraught political and security environment, and identifying ways to help promote stability in two troubled countries—Afghanistan and Pakistan—where Washington is likely to have a lighter footprint in the months and years ahead.

Policy recommendations:

·         Hold high-level exchanges with New Delhi that seek to find common ground on what should characterize a U.S.-India strategic relationship, and how to get there.

·         Step up security cooperation with Bangladesh, and press Dhaka—on counterterrorism grounds—to exercise restraint in its dealings with the political opposition. Cracking down on political opponents and cutting off peaceful channels to air grievances heightens prospects for radicalization.

·         Continue to provide security and civilian assistance to Afghanistan, even if in reduced amounts. Such support plugs away at gaping holes in Afghan governance and security capacities, and provides reassurance to a country that fears abandonment by the United States.

·         Identify and pursue areas of cooperation with Pakistan based on genuine shared interests, such as joint efforts to combat ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terror groups that directly threaten the United States and Pakistan. U.S. development assistance, which helps strengthen civilian institutions in Pakistan’s fragile democracy, should not be phased out.

·         Make substantive efforts to help improve the hostile Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. Better bilateral ties would boost stability along their porous border, and help lessen cross-border violence and terror.

·         Be more present in South Asia within multilateral settings, in order to maintain credibility in the broader region. Continue to provide robust support for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the CASA 1000 power transmission project. Take better advantage of Washington’s association with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, regional initiatives with objectives that align with U.S. regional goals. Additionally, signal unequivocal U.S. support for the India-led transport corridor project under development in Iran and Afghanistan.

The United States has long struggled with South Asia. This is no surprise, given the region’s size and complexity.

It is a struggle that plays out in policy circles, but also within the U.S. bureaucracy of statecraft and national security—which has long had trouble conceiving of South Asia as a single, distinct region.

Consider that the State Department’s regional bureau for South Asia also includes Central Asia. Similarly, USAID has an Office for South and Central Asian Affairs. Both State and USAID have separate offices focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the two U.S. military commands split the region right down the middle: Central Command (CENTCOM) oversees Pakistan, while Pacific Command (PACOM) oversees India.

All this said, there is razor-sharp clarity about the chief U.S. policy objective in South Asia: The pursuit of stability. It’s an admittedly ambitious goal in a region riven with interstate tensions, including between nuclear-armed neighbors; rife with insurgency and other violent conflicts; and flush with security problems ranging from Islamist militancy to organized crime.

A Compelling Case for Continued Engagement

These clear and present threats to stability underscore why the United States cannot afford to take its eye off the South Asia ball—even as developments in the Middle East will undoubtedly and understandably continue to consume the attention of U.S. policymakers.

Another compelling reason to ensure sustained U.S. engagement is South Asia’s overall strategic significance. South Asia sits astride the Indian Ocean region—an area, in the words of noted foreign affairs commentator Robert Kaplan, that “may comprise a map as iconic to the new century as Europe was to the last one.” This region boasts some of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in the world, in an era when many countries are experiencing slower growing and ageing demographics. It abuts critical sea lanes for trade. It serves as a gateway to the Middle East and to China. And it enjoys some of the world’s greatest wealth—yet also suffers from some of its worst poverty. South Asia is also acutely vulnerable to natural resource stress and the effects of climate change—threats that will define the 21st century.

Three Geopolitical Shifts

Furthermore, three geopolitical shifts underfoot in South Asia and the broader world amplify the inevitability—or at least, for the sake of U.S. interests, strong desirability— of continued engagement with the region in the coming months and years.

U.S. Combat Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The first shift, perhaps ironically, relates to the scaled-down U.S. role in Afghanistan, ever since the American combat war ended in 2014. A lighter U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan has led to a decreased U.S. policy focus on Afghanistan. This is concerning, given the country’s deteriorating security situation.

And yet, at the same time, this presents a silver lining for U.S. South Asia policy. Less focus on Afghanistan means that the U.S. strategic lens applied to South Asia during the early years of the Obama administration—a narrow optic centered on Afghanistan and Pakistan—is being redirected elsewhere in the region, and particularly to India. Perhaps not coincidentally, U.S.-India relations have been deepening ever since U.S. combat troops began departing Afghanistan in 2014 (and also since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a strong proponent of warmer bilateral ties, took office that same year). The receding of the Afghanistan-Pakistan-focused lens also provides openings to hone in more on Bangladesh—a powder keg of a country that U.S. policy has long neglected. Washington’s widening South Asia optic also presents opportunities for the United States to make more concrete contributions to regional connectivity projects like transport corridors and energy infrastructure. U.S. officials periodically articulate support for such initiatives, depicting them as stabilization projects. And yet little has been done on operational levels.

An Accelerating Asia Rebalance

A second notable shift that accentuates the importance of American engagement with South Asia is a redoubled U.S. focus on the Asia rebalance. This much-ballyhooed “pivot,” intended to allocate more American resources to the Asia-Pacific, has been painfully slow in coming. However, concrete U.S. actions over the last year—multiple high-level trips to the Asia-Pacific, successful efforts to solidify new friendships (such as with Burma and Vietnam), and intensified U.S. participation in joint exercises with friendly militaries in the region—suggest the policy is gaining steam. Additionally, the Transpacific Partnership trade accord, if ratified, would not only incentivize, but also necessitate, a more intense U.S. focus on the Asia Pacific. And yet it is growing U.S. unease about China’s provocative moves in the Asia-Pacific that arguably constitutes the most powerful incentive to push forward with the rebalance—a concern that will remain paramount regardless of who is in the White House come January 2017.

India, and by extension South Asia, plays a critical role in the Asia rebalance policy, because Washington views India as a useful counterweight to China. The Modi government’s articulation of a new “Act East” policy—suggesting a more active and robust policy in the Asia-Pacific than the “Look East” policy embraced by previous administrations—is music to Washington’s ears, because it amplifies how the United States and India intend to rebalance to the same region, and for the same reason: to provide a counterweight to China.

Resilient and Expanding Terrorist Networks

A third geopolitical shift that provides Washington with a strong incentive to remain focused on South Asia is the resurgence and expansion of global terrorist syndicates. At first glance, this may seem like a questionable assertion, because today international terror networks arguably pose the greatest threats outside of South Asia. Al-Qaeda’s presence and clout in South Asia are a far cry from the pre-9/11 era. Its central leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has been decimated, and some of its remaining top officials have reportedly relocated to Syria. Today, the greatest strength of al-Qaeda lies in its regional affiliates, and the most powerful ones (some of which have plotted attacks on the United States) are based in the Middle East and North Africa, not South Asia. Meanwhile, the territorial advances of ISIS have largely been limited to the Middle East, and its relentless onslaught of attacks has mostly taken place in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.

And yet, al-Qaeda has not exactly shriveled up and died in South Asia. In 2014, it announced the launch of a new South Asia affiliate. In 2015, the U.S. military claimed to have discovered “probably the largest” al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan since American forces entered the country in 2001. Additionally, al-Qaeda retains deep ties to many of the region’s most vicious terror groups—including the Haqqani network and Afghan and Pakistani Talibans, all of which have targeted Americans in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, ISIS has formally declared its expansion into the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. While its physical presence in South Asia is modest, ISIS boasts considerable brand appeal among disaffected local militants—many of them former Taliban fighters in Afghanistan—happy to carry out attacks in its name, and possibly with guidance and other non-operational support from ISIS central authorities in the Middle East. With ISIS increasingly on the defensive as it struggles to manage its shrinking so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it has a strong incentive to demonstrate its continued clout by staging (or at least claiming association with) attacks elsewhere in the world, including South Asia. In the summer of 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for mass-casualty atrocities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Ominously, in the coming months, the presence and influence of al-Qaeda and ISIS could strengthen in South Asia. Deteriorating security in Afghanistan could enable the Taliban to carve out new sanctuaries that double as safe havens for its al-Qaeda ally. This means that an early key U.S. achievement in Afghanistan—the elimination of al-Qaeda sanctuaries—could well be reversed. Additionally, ongoing fragmentation and splintering within the Taliban could spawn new militant factions that reject their parent organization and pledge allegiance to ISIS. Finally, the possibility exists that if ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed, al-Qaeda could extend an olive branch to its erstwhile Iraq affiliate. If ISIS feels sufficiently on the defensive and vulnerable, it could well opt for reconciliation. A reunited al-Qaeda and ISIS would spell big trouble for South Asia.

The uptake? Writing South Asia out of the U.S. foreign policy script would be not just unfortunate, but downright dangerous.

The Challenges of Continued Engagement

Washington has compelling reasons to stay engaged in South Asia, but sustained engagement also presents a series of policy challenges and conundrums.

India: Definitional Dilemmas About Strategic Partnership

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington in June was meant in part to showcase the many shared values and interests between the two countries, and to make the case that U.S.-India relations enjoy sufficiently deep repositories of goodwill to flourish deep into the future, regardless of who is America’s next president. This may well be true; the U.S.-India relationship is one of the few U.S. foreign policy issues that enjoys widespread bipartisan support. However, for U.S.-India relations to truly take off, Washington and New Delhi will need to work through some definitional disagreements about the nature of their relationship. These disputes are quite separate from, and more fundamental than, the policy-focused bilateral disagreements that revolve around U.S. visa laws for Indian workers, India’s position on global trade negotiations, and Washington’s relationship with the Pakistani military, among other points of tension.

The core definitional disconnect in U.S.-India relations is what exactly constitutes a strategic relationship. Both countries claim to want one, but without defining what this means—and yet each country has a different expectation of what strategic partnership entails. For Washington, generally speaking, strategic partnerships are expected to involve close operational security cooperation, including the possibility of joint operations. For India, this type of cooperation is off the table, at least for now. When PACOM commander Admiral Harry Harris, in a 2016 speech in New Delhi, proposed joint patrols between the U.S. and Indian navies in the South China Sea, Indian officials promptly responded that such options would not be welcome. India’s idea of a strategic partnership, meanwhile, involves high levels of technology transfers and arms deals. For Washington, such transactions, while essential, are only part of a broader package. An inability to reconcile these differing views of strategic partnership could constrain U.S.-India security cooperation, and more broadly complicate efforts to move the relationship forward.

The two countries could benefit from several high-level exchanges that seek to find some common ground on what should characterize a U.S.-India strategic relationship, and how to get there.

Bangladesh: A Delicate Dance with Dhaka

Over the last decade or so, Washington has relegated its relations with Dhaka to the backburner of South Asia policy, where they have been subordinated to America’s relationships with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (though to be fair, the United States has provided ample aid to Bangladesh—more so than to any country in Asia other than Afghanistan and Pakistan). Until recently, this relative inattention to Bangladesh made sense, particularly given serious stability concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bangladesh, despite great political volatility, did not pose major threats to U.S. interests. However, deprioritizing Bangladesh has now become an untenable policy as the country suffers through an increasingly violent campaign of Islamist terrorism, culminating in an ISIS-claimed attack on a popular Dhaka caf頩n July. Like several other attacks that preceded it, the assault on the Holey caf頴argeted foreigners. In effect, in Bangladesh, America’s core interest—stability—and American lives are both at risk.

These developments suggest the need for greater U.S. engagement with Bangladesh. How to orient this engagement, however, is a delicate matter. In an ideal world, Washington would ramp up counterterrorism cooperation with Dhaka in order to help Bangladesh identify local extremists and probe possible links between homegrown militants and global terror outfits like al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, Bangladesh’s government frequently uses counterterrorism sweeps as pretexts for cracking down hard on the political opposition. If Washington does choose to increase security cooperation—and particularly security assistance—then it will need to work to ensure that its dollars do not end up being used to bankroll draconian measures against Dhaka’s political opponents. U.S. officials should press Dhaka to exercise restraint in its dealings with the opposition—not just to safeguard human rights, but also to forestall terror. By cracking down on political opponents and cutting off peaceful channels to air grievances, prospects for radicalization are heightened—and particularly when these channels are denied to the likes of Jamaat-e-Islami, an anti-government Islamist party that harbors hard-line views and harbors violent factions. Unfortunately, given Bangladesh’s notoriously polarizing political environment, fueled in part by an ugly vendetta between the country’s prime minister and its top opposition leader, Dhaka is unlikely to relent anytime soon.

Afghanistan and Pakistan: Sustaining Stability with a Smaller Footprint

Afghanistan and Pakistan are arguably the two greatest sources of instability in South Asia, and yet U.S. relations are destined to be downgraded with both of them. A smaller U.S. military mission, coupled with considerable donor fatigue, portends less engagement with Afghanistan. This means that Washington’s relations with Islamabad, which tend to be viewed through the lens of Afghanistan, could also grow more distant—and perhaps more tense as well. When the United States was fighting a combat war in Afghanistan, it sought to build more trust with Islamabad to help secure its assistance there. And yet now, with U.S. forces no longer in a combat role, Pakistan’s help isn’t as crucial—and Washington can afford to take a tougher line. Predictably, in 2016, the United States—for the first time—launched a drone into the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, killing Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, who enjoyed sanctuary there; it refused to subsidize the sale of an F16 package to Pakistan; and it threatened to cut back financial assistance to the Pakistani military for failing to adequately crack down on militancy.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington’s core challenge is to find ways to help promote stability with a lighter footprint. This is no easy task, given the scale of the challenges that Washington confronts in both countries.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency —sustained by its sanctuaries in Pakistan, fueled by drug money, and emboldened by struggling Afghan security forces—rages on. Afghanistan’s government, regarded by many across the country as feckless and corrupt, has little capacity to weaken the insurgency, which now controls more territory now than at any time since 2001. And in Pakistan, the military’s counterterrorism offensives have helped reduce terrorist violence, but the state still refuses to cut ties to Pakistan-based terror groups—like the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba—that have staged attacks in India and especially Afghanistan that kill Americans. More broadly, Pakistan—with its hardline religious institutions and clerics, its climate of intolerance toward religious minorities, and above all its refusal to crack down on terror groups of all forms—continues to provide an entrenched, enabling environment for the extremist ideologies that fuel terror.

Indeed, another big U.S. challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan may be to admit that there is only so much Washington can do. It can’t magically transform beleaguered Afghan armed forces into a war-fighting powerhouse. It can’t magically refashion the Afghan government into a paragon of good governance. Meanwhile, Washington—no matter how much aid it dangles—cannot compel Pakistan to sever its ties with, or deny sanctuary to, terror groups on its soil. Pakistan’s core strategic interest is to keep India at bay, and it believes maintaining links to terror groups can help it do so. American weapons or dollars are unlikely to alter the cold, hard calculus of Pakistan’s unshakeable strategic interest. In fact, providing arms and cash just causes Pakistan to double down.

The United States should continue providing security and civilian assistance in Afghanistan, even if in modest amounts. The presence of U.S. troops provides psychological reassurance to a military, government, and population that fears abandonment by the United States, and it helps plug away at gaping holes in Afghan warfighting capacities. As bad as things are now, they could well spiral out of control in the event of a full U.S. withdrawal—from mass desertions within the military to an acute economic crisis and, perhaps, civil war.

In Pakistan, the United States should identify and pursue areas of cooperation based on genuine shared interests. These may include, for example, joint efforts to combat ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terror groups that directly threaten the United States and Pakistan. Bilateral exchanges on softer areas of cooperation—water, energy, education—can be useful to build goodwill, though with U.S. troops no longer needing as much Pakistani assistance in the Afghanistan war effort, it may be difficult to justify expending so much diplomatic capital to cultivate that goodwill. Still, U.S. development assistance to Pakistan, which could face significant cuts, should not be altogether phased out, given the important role it seeks to serve: strengthening civilian institutions in a nation where democracy is dangerously fragile.

Furthermore, Washington should actively pursue efforts to improve the hostile Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. Better ties would boost stability along their porous border, and help lessen cross-border violence and terror. The United States is better off serving as an intermediary in this troubled relationship than it is in the India-Pakistan one, given New Delhi’s rigid opposition to any outside efforts to help ease its tensions with Pakistan. India worries that any external mediation would mean bringing up the Kashmir dispute, which New Delhi believes has long been settled.

Overall, sustained U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan presents three fundamental policy conundrums.

·         Maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan helps Afghan forces, but also provides propaganda coups for the Taliban—which vows to fight until every last foreign occupier leaves Afghanistan—and gives it an excuse not to pursue peace talks with Kabul. Washington, aware that Afghanistan’s war can’t be won militarily, fervently supports talks.

·         In 2016, Obama announced measures giving remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan more flexibility to go after the Taliban. This move could produce tactical counterinsurgency successes, but it could also strengthen ISIS. This is because the Taliban, to this point, has effectively fought off ISIS-aligned militants in eastern Afghanistan. By weakening the Taliban, the United States weakens an anti-ISIS ally of America’s in Afghanistan.

·         So long as Washington keeps sending military assistance to Pakistan, it runs the risk of having this aid used to fund or arm groups, such as the Haqqani Network, which threaten U.S. lives in Afghanistan, or those like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which threaten India. Such outcomes would undermine the very stability that U.S. military assistance is meant to promote. Even worse, such outcomes could endanger American lives.

Ultimately, U.S. policy challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan boil down to an uncomfortable yet critical question: How much diplomatic, security, and financial capital is Washington willing to expend in pursuit of stability that has long been elusive, despite ample American largesse?

Remaining Relevant in the Region

In South Asia, despite its best efforts, the United States remains a relative outsider. It has been out-engaged and outmaneuvered by China, which is busily building out its One Belt, One Road project—an enterprise that entails deep levels of infrastructure investments across Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Meanwhile, India is developing its own, more modest, regional infrastructure project, with efforts underway to construct Chabahar port in southern Iran along with roads and railroads up to the Iranian border with Afghanistan. South Asia, much like Asia on the whole, has become a battleground for influence between Asia’s two rising powers.

In fact, these Chinese and Indian regional infrastructure projects are both good for Washington, because they aim to produce the same outcomes the United States wishes for in South Asia: more infrastructure and development, enhanced regional connectivity, and, above all, stability. In this sense, there’s nothing wrong with Washington playing second fiddle to China and India in South Asia.

At the same time, within broader regional settings, the United States risks losing credibility by not being more present. To this end, U.S. engagement with South Asia should be multilateral as well as bilateral. Washington’s robust backing for a gas pipeline project involving Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India is a good start, as is its financial support for CASA 1000, a power transmission project involving Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. It should also take full advantage of its association with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), where it holds observer status, and with the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, where it is a supporting member. The objectives of these two initiatives are to promote South Asian regional trade and cooperation (in the case of the former) and cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors (in the case of the latter). Both align with U.S. regional goals. Furthermore, Washington should signal its unequivocal support for the India-led Chabahar deal. Endorsing it would telegraph Washington’s support for—and awareness of—India’s growing regional footprint.

 To be sure, sustained bilateral and multilateral U.S. engagement in South Asia is a very tall order, and especially at a time when the attention of American foreign policymakers is consumed by crises in the Middle East, Europe, and Russia. And yet, numerous critical factors—bearing on issues of stability, strategic significance, and geopolitical shifts—amplify the importance of placing South Asia on the crowded front burner of U.S. foreign policy priorities.

This chapter was originally appeared in: U.S. Foreign Policy in Asia and Completing the Rebalance (Wilson Center)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.