The Straight Path to Prosperity
This is clearly a time of great dynamism across South Asia, with elections and transitions unfolding across the region. These developments offer many opportunities and create new imperatives for the future of US policy. While the prosperity agenda in South Asia is critically important, it is also important to enhance political stability and security in the region. A big constraint has always been the barriers that exist between the two major countries of South Asia - India and Pakistan. It is certainly encouraging to see that the democratic polity in Pakistan has changed from one political party to another through the democratic vote. It is also encouraging to see the economic progress made by Pakistan in recent months though the country still continues to face serious challenges. India also finds itself in the eye of continued vulnerability, the most important being the outcome of the ongoing general elections. Described as the longest elections in India’s history, the final outcome of the exercise will be evident in the second week of May. The results will then determine which party or a set of parties takes charge in the country and who will be the leader of India that the world, including the U.S., will do business with.
This is also the year of presidential elections in Afghanistan. Much of the country’s future will depend on who gets into the driving seat. The US stands a good chance to work with Abdullah Abdullah. As opposed to Hamid Karzai, he offers more opportunities to lead the country towards an era of consolidation and explore those areas of progress that had heretofore been neglected. The US also cannot ignore the security challenges posed by the drawdown of NATO forces in Afghanistan. According to latest reports, the number of U.S. troops to be left behind in the country may drop well below 10,000 - the minimum demanded by the U.S. military - as the longest war in American history winds down. It has to be accepted that while NATO and the US forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there is nothing that these forces have succeeded in achieving. In fact, if anything, the Taliban have demonstrated a clear resurgence. If there was a desire on the part of the US to set its boots on the ground in Afghanistan, it succeeded in doing so on the pretext of 9/11. It managed to dig its heels in Kabul, to develop the Bagram airbase and to establish various listening posts to monitor Pakistan, China, Russia and the Central Asian States - but this is as far as US success went. The ‘residual’ force that the US intends to leave behind now will enable it to man these installations and, of course, ‘train Afghan forces.’
The US is, nevertheless, encouraged that the countries of the region are now choosing policies that promote economic growth and social development so that the millions can be lifted out of the morass of poverty and look towards a more prosperous, healthy and secure life. The future, both in the near and long term, offers a whole spectrum of challenges and opportunities for the U.S. to assist and guide the countries of South Asia and help them join the mainstream if global development. The path is, as usual, twisted and meandering but there is an enormous potential for continued expansion of relations between the U.S. and South Asia.
More than two decades back, I was at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., attending the International Visitor Program on U.S.-South Asia Relations. I was in a group that comprised Mrs. Abha Dixit, Dr. Gopal Ji Malviya and Mr. M.N. Verma from India and Mr. Rashid Ahmed Khan and myself from Pakistan. We were being conducted to another area within the Pentagon by a smart and charming young lady who was our facilitator. Considering the long, unending corridors of the Pentagon building, I asked her how long would it take for us to follow the straight path, which seemed quite cumbersome after a heavy lunch. “Oh dear, there is nothing straight at the Pentagon,” I was very matter-of-factly told. Since then, I have constantly found that the quip had for me many more connotations in the context of South Asia – and I still wonder how right the young lady was!