South Asia 2011: Strategic Challenges Confronting US – Analysis


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

South Asia in 2011 presents a disturbing and vexatious strategic and political landscape to the United States policy establishment in terms of challenges which cannot await more deliberate and long drawn out debates to formulate policy options and decisions. The strategic challenges for the United States in South Asia basically arise in relation to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

Pakistan heads the list in posing the strongest and widest array of strategic challenges to the United States. The United States-Pakistan strategic partnership which formed the defining feature of United States policy formulations in South Asia stands unraveled in2011 for reasons which do not need recounting here. No amount of United States ‘band-aid patchwork repairs’ can retrieve the trust-deficit that now wideningly dominates its strategic and political relationship with Pakistan.

Afghanistan can be said to have been relatively stabilized in 2011 and the United States seems to have a clear strategic blueprint on how it intends to shape the strategic and political affairs in Afghanistan till 2014 at least. The major strategic challenge for the United States over Afghanistan does not arise from within Afghanistan but in the maddening uncertainties that the Pakistan Army imposes on any US options to further reinforce the security and stability of Afghanistan.

India inherently by itself does not pose any strategic challenges to the United States in South Asia. The strategic challenge for the United States in South Asia in relation to India lies in preventing the ‘Pakistan Army Factor’ which predominates all US policy formulations in South Asia to cast long shadows on the evolving US-India Strategic Partnership.

In light of contemporaneous strategic and political developments in South Asia, the United States can ill-afford to lose its proximity to India and Afghanistan for the sake of rehabilitating Pakistan Army’s lost causes of demanding from the United States for strategically co-equating Pakistan with India and that in relation to Afghanistan, the United States concede Afghanistan to Pakistan’s sphere of domination as its strategic backyard.

United States Key Strategic challenges in Pakistan: Pakistan Army Devalued in Domestic Political Dynamics, Pakistan Army’s Temptation for a Military Coup & Pakistan’s Likely Implosion

United States policy formulations on South Asia and on Pakistan for nearly half a century lay heavily predicated on the Pakistan Army and its strategic utility to deliver on United States strategic objectives and interests in the region. The United States accorded this primacy to the Pakistan Army despite its strategic tilt and nexus with China.

The above US policy formulation was further predicated on United States belief that a Pakistan Army strengthened by US military aid and political backing would be able to control the course of political developments in Pakistan subservient to United States strategic objectives.

The ground realities in 2011 stand radically changed with the Pakistan Army having lost its sheen in Pakistan’s political dynamics and dunking for cover to escape the overwhelming adverse Pakistani public reaction following the Abbottabad incident.

In the wake of the above, events in Pakistan are sequentially likely to play the following sequence in which a domestically devalued Pakistan Army stung by the loss of its traditional primacy in Pakistani national affairs resorts to another military coup and this in its turn unleashing a series of reactions ending in a civil war type of situation in Pakistan and hence Pakistan’s likely implosion.

The crucial question that then stares starkly for the United States policy establishment is whether the United States has the means, capabilities and the political will to reverse the downslide towards state-failure of Pakistan?

Current indicators of United States moves in Pakistan suggest otherwise. All that the United States is currently involved in is the application of a patchwork of band-aid strips hoping that Pakistan in even an unsatisfactory relationship with United States endures till 2014 at least.

The United States is at strategic cross-roads in Pakistan faced with the crucial decision of abandoning Pakistan to its own devices or shoring up the status-quo. The United States was forced to abandon Iran in 1979 and the heavens would not strategically fall on the United States should it strategically abandon Pakistan

A logical corollary of the above would be the alternative strategic imperative of United States remaining embedded in Afghanistan to checkmate Pakistan’s provocative strategic waywardness in the wake of its abandonment by the United States.

Afghanistan’s Strategic Challenges for the United States: Steadfastly Adhering to its Strategic Blueprint to Stay Embedded in Afghanistan Beyond 2014 Under a Mutual Security Treaty with Afghanistan

United States existing strategic blueprint on Afghanistan envisages an American embedment in Afghanistan on a graduated drawdown scale till 2014 and thereafter too in cases the security environment so dictates.

This American strategic blueprint is at cross-purposes and contradictory to Pakistan Army’s blueprint on Afghanistan. The Pakistan Army blueprint on Afghanistan is premised on inducing combat fatigue on the United States through incessant disruptive operations by Pakistan Army surrogates outfits and prompting a hasty US exit from Afghanistan. This could then pave the way for the return of a Pakistan Army controlled Taliban regime in Kabul.

In the run-up to 2014 the Pakistan Army besieged from within and thwarted from its imperial designs on Afghanistan by the American strategic blueprint can be hoped to mess-up things in Afghanistan especially in the run-up to US presidential elections.

While the United States has incrementally marginalized Pakistan in Afghan affairs, the latest being opening direct talks with Afghan Taliban, the United States challenge is to insulate Afghanistan comprehensively from Pakistan Army’s interference till 2014 and till such time the Afghan National Army is combat ready to secure Afghanistan.

On balance the recommendations that I have been constantly made in the last year and needs reiteration is that the United States needs to speedily work to conclude a United States-Afghanistan Mutual Security Treaty on the lines that it has with Japan.

This would have two major advantages in that a US Forward Military Presence in Afghanistan could be put in place of about 40,000 US Troops and secondly such a US military presence in a highly volatile neighboring region would not only provide a security umbrella to Afghanistan but also extend US influence and deterrence capabilities in the region.

United States Major Strategic Challenge in South Asia: Policy Corrections to Concede India’s Regional Power Predominance

At the root cause of all United States strategic miseries in South Asia so far is the inescapable conclusion that for far too long the United States had indulged in its South Asian policies, the strategic charade that Pakistan is the “strategic co-equal” of India and that India needs to be strategically balanced.

All of the above arose from the American policy conclusion that while Pakistan was a willing “ collusive strategic partner “ of the United States, India could never ever enter into any strategic collusion with the United States.

Strategically the South Asia security environment has undergone a dramatic change in India’s favor. India is on an ascendant trajectory and the United States Major Non-NATO Ally in South Asia is on a descendant trajectory. This completely knocks out any US strategic equations of Pakistan and India being “strategic co-equals”.

The United States never seems to have realized that its South Asia policy approaches paved the way for China’s strategic intrusiveness in South Asia whose long term strategic implications now await the United States not only in South Asia but also in contiguous regions.

Policy corrections are therefore called upon from the United States to concede India’s regional power predominance, dispense with US formulas of Pakistan and India being “strategic co-equals” and let the natural balance of power prevail in South Asia by desisting from enhancement of Pakistan Army military capabilities by external infusions.

Such policy corrections by the United States could possibly ensure that while India will never be in strategic collusion with the United States it would however be a supportive friend and partner.

Concluding Observations

South Asia in 2011 presents the United States with grave and complex challenges when it comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The United States faces these challenges in 2011 because of its own acts of commissions and omissions in the field of its South Asia policies.. Its strategic priorities in South Asia were misperceived and misplaced.

In 2011 the United States has to come to grips with a painful reality that like Iran in 1979 which witnessed the exit of the United States due to popular discontent, the situation in Pakistan, notwithstanding the Pakistan Army, may be brewing in the same direction.

Afghanistan contextually should emerge in the strategic calculus of the United States as the ‘center of gravity’ in American policies displacing Pakistan Army which has miserably let down the United States.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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