June 12th, 2012
Author: Mahin Karim, NBR
Although the US and NATO have announced their intention to draw down their forces in Afghanistan, the question of state instability in Pakistan will continue to influence the decision to maintain some presence in the region.
The prospect of state failure for a nuclear power poses a significant geopolitical and security challenge, both for US interests, and for peace and stability in South and Central Asia as a whole.
Democratic transition in Pakistan remains a weak political process. It is hampered by the often contradictory interests of a strong and deeply entrenched military establishment with ties to religious extremists, and is defined by an anti-Indian agenda. Concerns over Pakistan’s future stability are driving US policy toward ‘resetting’ the relationship, but the solution to the conundrum may lie with Pakistan’s neighbours. India, China and Iran share vulnerable strategic borders with Pakistan, and risk a spillover effect should Pakistan collapse. All three have a strong stake in containing instability, and in some respects may be better placed than the US to influence Pakistan’s future.
India aspires to be a global player, and recent positive developments in its relations with the other South Asian countries indicate that India is aware it cannot assume a place on the global geopolitical stage without first resolving issues in its immediate neighbourhood. While India–Pakistan hostility poses the biggest challenge in minimising traditional South Asian antipathies, there are signs of change. For example, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) granted India most-favoured nation trade status despite the military establishment’s objections and the party’s precarious political status. This decision signals a political will that India and the international community would do well to nurture. Pakistan’s powerful ‘shadow’ establishment may still try to frustrate these efforts, as it has done in the past, but it need not be successful this time: indirect intervention by the US and other international stakeholders may assist in providing both carrots and sticks to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian institutions against pressures from the country’s military.
India also offers the US the opportunity to conduct quiet diplomacy with Pakistan’s neighbour to the West — Iran. Given the US’s mistrust of Iran’s motives and their conflicting priorities in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, the US may be reluctant to engage Iran. Yet an unstable Pakistan is no more in Iran’s interests than it is in India’s or the US’s. Rather than pressing New Delhi to curb its energy relations with Iran, the US should consider letting the relationship be and testing India’s capabilities as a mature regional power. Demonstrating its diplomatic credentials at the regional level would be a unique opportunity for India to show its mettle as an aspiring global power.
Pakistan’s relationship with China is more complicated, but there is potential for quiet diplomacy here too. China continues to be influential in Islamabad and uses this influence indirectly to provoke India. Yet there are signs that Beijing increasingly shares US and Indian fears about political instability in Pakistan. China can very well direct its influence toward containing Pakistan, if it chooses to do so. The withdrawal of US and NATO forces from the region — and the accompanying realisation that the US will no longer foot the bill for regional stability — could compel Beijing to step up its own diplomacy with Pakistan.
The traditional antagonisms of South Asia present both challenges and opportunities. US assistance to Pakistan has contributed to increasing levels of anti-Americanism, which fuel Pakistan’s extremist elements and bolster the power structures of its ‘shadow’ establishment. Perhaps it is time to let the region play a larger role in stabilising Pakistan. Rather than continuing to throw money at the problem, the US should develop an alternative strategy and engage regional actors to deal with Pakistan. In that way the US can achieve its desired objectives in the region without necessarily bearing the costs.
India, China and Iran have indirectly benefited from the West’s efforts to counter terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The withdrawal of US and NATO forces will compel India, China and Iran to assume responsibility for security in their own backyard, and may offer opportunities for new security architectures that will indirectly benefit US interests in Asia. Both India and China demand recognition as mature powers in the global geopolitical arena — and it may be time to let them demonstrate the behaviour and responsibilities that go with being a great-power and a good neighbour.
Mahin Karim is Senior Associate in Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.