Masters, Not Friends

Can the US af­ford to grow dis­en­chanted with South Asia?

Southasia - - Contents - By Robert M. Hath­away

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 to­mor- row’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 re­main­der 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 ef- fect 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 Osama 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 Lanka’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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