Robert M. Hathaway: Losing Interest?

Interest in an engaged presence in South Asia is rapidly waning in the wake of the coming American elections. It remains to be seen whether the strategy will be beneficial for both sides in the long run.

Foreign policy rarely figures prominently in American elections. The upcoming November presidential and congressional contests demonstrate the continued pertinence of this hoary political maxim. Still buffeted by an anemic recovery from the 2008 financial meltdown, few US voters will give much thought to foreign policy as they enter the polling booths. And fewer still will consider how South Asia will be affected by their choices, let alone how the region will in turn influence the leaders elected this November.

Nonetheless, even if absent from the minds of most US voters, South Asia continues to loom large in the thinking of official Washington. Afghanistan offers today’s dilemma. India represents tomorrow’s promise (though not a surefire bet). Pakistan, today and tomorrow, remains the joker, the headache, potentially the stuff of nightmares.

For a war that has become the longest in America’s history, it is striking how little the fighting in Afghanistan features in the political campaigning this year. Americans are tired of the war and increasingly inclined to believe that nothing good can come of extending the US presence there. Even the most flag-waving Republicans are reluctant to go too far in arguing that this war must be won, no matter what the cost.

At last May’s NATO summit in Chicago, it was decided that Afghan forces would assume the lead security role in three-quarters of the country this year, and throughout the reminder of Afghanistan by mid-2013. Western (primarily US and British) combat troops will thereafter play a support role until their final withdrawal in December 2014. It remains to be seen whether Western publics will tolerate even this drawdown schedule. How the expenses of the Afghan security forces are to be covered post-2014 is an even greater mystery, notwithstanding the Chicago pledges of multi-billion dollar assistance through 2024. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is regarded as hopeless. For the majority of Americans, Afghanistan and the US enterprise there, seems like a house of cards, poised to collapse once NATO decamps.

India, on the other hand, might be a happier story. In assessing US-India ties, one must never lose sight of how far that relationship has developed over the past 15 years. Yet today, many Americans feel the partnership is adrift, even though the Obama administration continues publicly to put on a happy face. Scars from the tough fight over the US-India civilian nuclear agreement a few years ago have not fully healed and many Americans believe they made great concessions to New Delhi that India has yet to reciprocate, either by the purchase of nuclear energy plants or in defense sales. Disagreements over Iran have also rankled, especially in the US Congress.

For the Obama administration, Afghanistan provides an opportunity for India to demonstrate the value of its growing international profile. The US is keen to have New Delhi assume a greater role in Afghanistan, applauding the signing of an Indian-Afghan strategic partnership agreement last year, and enthusiastically backing the recent creation of a US-India-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue process. If New Delhi can help maintain stability in Afghanistan once Western powers leave, those in Washington who have placed faith in a rising India actively embracing broader global responsibilities, will feel themselves vindicated.

Washington also seeks a greater Indian presence in East Asia, as an adjunct to Washington’s own “pivot”, or as the Obama administration prefers, “rebalance” toward Asia. The administration document unveiling its new strategic approach toward Asia celebrates the establishment of a “long-term strategic partnership” with India in order that New Delhi might serve as a “regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.” Mere rhetoric? Not when one considers that none of Washington’s other major Asian partners are even mentioned in this document – nary a sentence about Japan, Korea, Australia, or Indonesia. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote not long ago, “the United States is making a strategic bet on India’s future.”

If Afghanistan serves to bring India and the US together, it has just the opposite effect on Pakistan-US ties. Virtually every element in the long litany of Pakistani and US grievances has roots in Afghanistan. Pakistanis blame the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 for most of the ills that plague their country today. Americans view Pakistan as culpable in the deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan and intent on fomenting further instability in its western neighbor. US encouragement of New Delhi taking on greater responsibilities in Afghanistan causes intense heartburn in Islamabad.

In truth, relations between Islamabad and Washington have never recovered from the triple whammy of 2011: the killing of two Pakistani intelligence agents by CIA contractor Raymond Davis; the discovery that Obama bin Laden enjoyed a quiet life in Abbottabad; and the November US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at Salala. Today, the relationship is mired in arguments over US drones, the disruption of NATO supply convoys traversing Pakistani territory, and Islamabad’s demand for an American apology for the Salala tragedy. Skillful diplomacy will in time probably find ways around all three issues but the damage to the relationship will endure.

In 2009, the US Congress adopted the Kerry-Lugar-Berman (KLB) Act, committing the United States to provide Pakistan with $1.5 billion in annual economic assistance. In passing KLB, Congress wagered that by investing in Pakistan’s political and economic development, the US could play a small but meaningful role in the creation of a prosperous, stable, tolerant, and inclusive nation.

Today, Congress is furiously backpedaling on its pledges. The revelation that bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight in Pakistan has led some to reassess the assumption that the countries share a common counterterrorism agenda. Others resent Pakistan’s unwillingness to undertake tough economic reforms as a step toward helping itself. Still others wonder why the US should assist a country where virulent anti-Americanism is pervasive.

The argument that America’s first responsibilities lie at home has been strengthened by US economic distress, a stubborn jobless rate, and a profusion of American domestic needs. To a Congress frantically looking for ways to slash spending, US economic assistance to Pakistan offers an easy target.

The other countries of the region seldom rise to White House attention, although Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Bangladesh demonstrates the mild interest that Washington has in that country. At least partially because Pakistan’s future seems so fraught, US officials are keen to see that Bangladesh, the regions’ other large Muslim-majority country, succeeds. They are increasingly frustrated by the inability of Bangladesh’s two political matriarchs to rise above personal vendetta.

Indeed, constitutional and political impasse in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives all pose disconcerting questions about the future of political liberalism in South Asia. Even Indian politics displays a sclerosis that worries its American friends. Throughout the region, polarization, confrontation, corruption, and downright thuggery threaten to undermine the belief that representative democracy can meet legitimate aspirations of the citizenry. Sri Lanks’s inability to capitalize on its resounding defeat of the LTTE and fashion a political system of reconciliation, reintegration, and accountability further discourages Washington’s South Asia watchers.

Foreign policy professionals, including those in the Obama administration, continue to believe that the US must remain engaged in the region. But the American public is increasingly resistant to that argument and even more to the idea of expending American lives and tax dollars there.

Whoever occupies the White House next year, one of his most important but difficult tasks will be to convince Americans why they should care about South Asia and its 1.6 billion citizens.

Robert M. Hathaway directs the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars in Washington, D.C.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Discussion, NATO, Politics, Taliban, United States

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