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Obama’s Foreign Policy Toward South Asia: Some Suggestions

September 19, 2008 |
Though the U.S. might seem consumed with the strategic quagmire in the Middle East, it would be wise to simultaneously attend to the risks and potential opportunities that lay waiting in South Asia.
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Should an Obama-Biden administration take office in January 2009, their top foreign policy priority will have to focus on the situation in Iraq, which has consumed U.S. lives, treasure, military readiness, and credibility. They will also need to address the derivative strategic dilemmas that have both resulted from and compounded the situation in Iraq, including a resurgent Iran, a reconstituted al-Qaeda, and an Arab-Israeli peace process unraveling by the hour. But though the U.S. might seem consumed with the strategic quagmire in the Middle East, it would be wise to simultaneously attend to the risks and potential opportunities that lay waiting in South Asia.

Speaking at a conference Denver, Colorado, Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University suggested resurrecting the antiquated State Department concept of India as part of the Middle East in order to ordain it a strategic anchor that could shoulder greater regional responsibility. The current administration, with the support of Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden, has pursued this objective partially through brokering the US-India nuclear deal. The deal seeks to remove obstacles to a strategic partnership that would allow for greater security cooperation on vital regional issues as well as provide a measure of geopolitical pluralism while China rises as a leading global power.

Since the nuclear deal recently cleared the Indian parliament and the Nuclear Supplier's Group by a hair's breadth, the next round will require significant political capital and hand-holding of the U.S. Congress and the Indian government to reassure skeptics and finalize the deal, a task akin to herding cats. Since Congress is unlikely to approve this before they break for recess at the end of September, an Obama/Biden administration would have to be committed from day one to get this through. Valid concerns still remain over the bill such as the vagueness of language and ambiguity over future testing. Ultimately, it is in the interest of both parties to secure a deal that appears to bolster rather than undermine the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Even India is concerned about proliferation and its cascading effect, particularly in its own backyard.

Despite the promise of this deal, U.S.-India relations cannot operate in a vacuum as the U.S. faces a greater challenge (and simultaneous opportunity) in Pakistan. The current administration has thus far compartmentalized its India and Pakistan policies when in fact they need to be linked to a broader regional strategy. Vice presidential candidate Sen. Biden has suggested that Pakistan poses the "real" front in the war on terror. While this is true, it has been poorly conceptualized, obscured due to a myopic focus on Afghanistan, counterterrorism tactics, and the Pakistani military as the sole interlocutors and partners.

To reconcile these tensions, the United States first needs to ditch the "war on terror" trope that has been roundly criticized for being strategically bankrupt and inviting both regional backlash and legal dilemmas. Instead, the U.S. should adopt what the former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry described at the Democratic National Convention in Denver -- a strategy of global counterinsurgency. Because counterinsurgency, as described by leading military theorists and practitioners, is 80 percent nonmilitary, the concept places a premium on political efforts to win over populations by addressing grievances and providing economic relief and development.

Next, the approach to Pakistan requires three principal tactics: 1) work closely with the Pakistan military, which continues to be one of the most professional and efficient institutions in Pakistan, to build long-term cooperation and support for the U.S. military; 2) refrain from taking political sides at the ballot box that compromises our brand, our long-term relationship, and invariably becomes the embrace of death for any Pakistani politicians; and 3) seriously start to invest in Pakistani people and institutions for the long term with much greater economic support for education, employment, and infrastructure development to afford the average Pakistani a real stake in the U.S. relationship. Sen. Biden proposed last fall for building real prospects (particularly in the poorer frontier provinces) to combat listlessness and disenfranchisement, but now his charge as vice president will be to turn that into a reality.

An outside the box maneuver would be to bring the Saudi government into the process of Pakistani development as they also have a long-term stake in combating the extremism that seeks to topple their regime. The Saudis have a spotty record in Pakistan with their track record of funding the mujahideen and radicalizing madrassas (though often aided and abetted by the U.S.). However, the Saudis have a credibility in Pakistan that the U.S. lacks. The reformist, internationalist King Abdullah has been deploying Saudi wealth from the recent oil boom into education, employment, and infrastructure investments throughout the Middle East, and might welcome the prospect of a joint U.S.-Saudi program to invest in the Pakistani development agenda.

Finally, because the strategic opportunities and dilemmas in India and Pakistan are tethered to each other, they must be approached in a comprehensive fashion. As is often said of the Middle East, one cannot address security problems in South Asia a la carte, and in this case, the path to dealing with both is by working to orchestrate an Indo-Pakistan peace deal. Such a move would quell the ever-looming threat of an escalatory nuclear exchange and alter the strategic calculus that currently incents the Pakistani military to provide some material support to the Taliban and other radical elements for strategic depth. Though the cause of the Indo-Pakistan peace process was brought further along by former Pakistani President Musharraf, the U.S. has not actively championed this front since President Clinton. A President Obama would be wise to send a Vice President Biden to begin the work on this comprehensive framework in South Asia.

One quick way to jump-start the Indo-Pakistan peace process early in an Obama administration would be to drop U.S. objections to the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline, which has stalled in part due to U.S. pressure on India. This could be leveraged in exchange for some further concessions on the India nuclear deal while propping India up as a regional stabilizer in the Middle East. And the more the U.S. does to foster positive relations between Iran and its neighbors, the more likely it is to allay fears of strategic encirclement, particularly by nuclear states, which in part feeds Iran's own nuclear ambitions.

In the end, a U.S. long-term engagement in South Asia is the only way to meet pressing strategic objectives related to the Middle East and misnamed "War on Terror." Engagement on strategic cooperation, politico-economic institutional development, and the peace process is the chief interest of all parties in the region. But the primary inhibitor to this virtuous cycle of cooperation will be if this is viewed as a zero-sum game rather than a win-win proposition. If an Obama administration takes office in January, the Indian and Pakistani governments need to rise above their political infighting and meet the U.S. halfway to inaugurate a new round of regional stability.

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