America Needs to Reorient Its South Asia Policy
South Asia is at the center of global geopolitical and economic trends. It is a rapidly developing region, containing a quarter of the world’s people. India, soon to be the world’s most populous country, is the fastest growing major economy in the world, having surpassed China last year. It also possesses nuclear weapons, as does neighboring Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous country. The region is situated between China and the Middle East, and between Central Asia and the Indian Ocean. A prime geopolitical location, if there is one.
While the Trump administration signaled the importance of the region by rebranding the Asia-Pacific the Indo-Pacific in its latest National Security Strategy (NSS), American priorities in the region are misplaced due to an excessive focus on Afghanistan.
The United States has now had combat troops in Afghanistan for more than 17 years. Yet despite spending $45 billion a year to combat various warring factions within the country along with local terrorist and militant groups, including the Taliban and ISIS, there is little to show by way of progress. The reach of the Taliban continues as the group is openly active in 70 percent of the country.
Afghanistan tied down both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan as well. Victory there proved elusive for both the British and Soviets. The United States should not waste any more blood and treasure trying to achieve the ephemeral aim of building a democratic nation-state there. Nor is it even particularly in American interests to do so. America’s goals in the region should be limited to taking out imminent threats.
The truth is: Afghanistan, with a population of 30 million, will never be pivotal geopolitically. Its economy is negligible, and major trade routes from China to Europe bypass it. Nothing about Afghanistan justifies the time and effort the U.S. has spent on it.
To benefit America, Washington must play a much smarter game in the region. Its main concern in Afghanistan should be limited to preventing international terrorists from plotting attacks on our interests. While Pakistan wants a weak and pliable neighbor, it certainly does not want to jeopardize its relations with the United States, which has at times included quite generous military aid. The United States should pressure Pakistan not to allow its lawless borderlands or Afghanistan to be used as staging grounds by terrorists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda to attack the U.S. and its allies.
Beyond that, if the U.S. ends its fruitless nation-building effort in Afghanistan, the Taliban can come to a resolution with the central government—something Washington has tried and failed (perpetually) to bring about by military force. The Taliban, are ultimately ethnic-Pashtun, Afghan nationalists, and it would be difficult for a potential Taliban government to toe the Pakistani line without question and still remain popular domestically. As Steve Coll detailed in his book Ghost Wars, many members of the Taliban and the U.S. government were willing to engage with each other when the movement ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 1999.
As Barry R. Posen has pointed out in The Atlantic, if the United States were to leave Afghanistan, its various rivals would soon be at each other’s throats, and America would be able to pursue its geopolitical interests without any loss of lives or money. Iran and the Taliban were mortal enemies and nearly went to war in 1998; any alliance of convenience between them against the United States would lose its raison d’être if American soldiers were to withdraw. Additionally, Russia does not want to see the Taliban gain greater influence, and would thus be pitted against Pakistan and China, which do. Growing cooperation between Russia and China is a threat to American interests. Posen also argues that an American withdrawal would lead to “intensified Indian-Pakistani competition in Afghanistan, [which] would deepen the emerging rivalry between India and China, driving India closer to the United States.”
Freed from worry about what might happen to our troops in Afghanistan, the United States could improve relations with Pakistan, despite the understandable urge to punish them for their intransigence. Pakistan has become increasingly close with China, which has built highways and a trade corridor there. Additionally, China is interested in building a naval base in western Pakistan, near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. Maintaining close relations with Islamabad and Pakistan’s military, in order to have some leverage and influence, and keep Pakistan in the American camp, is strongly in America’s interests.
Ultimately, disengaging from Afghanistan would free up the United States to engage India, which is emerging as one of the great powers of the 21st century. Support of permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), increased sales of advanced weaponry, and more joint defense industry ventures are all ways in which the U.S. could support India without pressuring them to abandon their core policy of “non-alignment.”
Focusing on strengthening India’s position would also improve American efforts at countering China, which the administration’s security and military strategists have dubbed the United States’ main strategic rival (which may be true down the road but is far from certain). According to The Diplomat, Chinese analysts have come to view India as their second greatest rival in Asia, after the United States, particularly because India’s nuclear, naval, and mountain forces pose enormous challenges to Chinese dominance of Asia.
It is imperative, then, that the U.S. disengages from Afghanistan and focuses on the broader geopolitical landscape of Asia in order to achieve its core security, economic, and political goals.
Akhilesh (Akhi) Pillalamarri is a Fellow at Defense Priorities. An international relations analyst, editor, and writer, he received his Master of Arts in Security Studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he concentrated in international security. His work has appeared at The Diplomat, The National Interest, The American Conservative, and Rising Powers in Global Governance. Follow him on Twitter @akhipill.