Event ReportsPublished on Nov 06, 2014
US President Obama's top priority now is the crisis in West Asia, ISIS and Ebola, and India-US relations though, not inconsequential, is not on Washington's top priority now, according to Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC.
Five recommendations for US to make its South Asia policy effective
Describing South Asia as a region to be in transition, characterised by leadership-changes, militancy, organised crime, piracy, and sectarianism, Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC has said that the newly-elected governments in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal will have to work closely with each other to ensure peace and prosperity in the region.

Initiating an interaction on "US Policy Options for South Asia" at the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on November 6, Kugelman spoke about policy recommendations for the US in the region. He said Washington’s chief policy objective would be to attain stability in this region. This shall be a herculean task, considering the region is deeply embroiled in sectarianism, Islamist militancy and political imbroglio. He had five major policy recommendations.

Think regionally

The first recommendation was that the US should think more regionally in South Asia. He said Washington often views the situation in Afghanistan through the India-Pakistan lens. India and Pakistan have competing interests in Afghanistan. While India is building closer ties with Afghanistan through economic investments in the region, Pakistan is wary of the Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been supporting non-State actors in Afghanistan, making the region more divisive and politically unstable.

He further added that India and Pakistan would try to exert more influence in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops in the region. He said the US should take a broader perspective, inclusive of the concerns of other stake-holders in this region. He cited Iran’s concerns about the Hazara Shias in Afghanistan, China’s anxiety over its economic investments in the region and Russia’s worries over the Afghan drug trade as other important concerns shared by neighbouring nations. He also noted that allowing these concerns to fester would only aggravate regional tensions.

Economic integration

Kugelman’s second policy recommendation was that the US should pursue policies and interventions to enable a closer economic integration of this region. He observed that South Asia was one of the poorly-integrated regions. Hence a closer economic integration would foster development, improve the standard of living and more importantly curb militancy, sectarianism and extremism in the region. Establishing a new ’Silk Route’ in this region would facilitate economic development along the route and reinvigorate old trade relations between South and Central Asia.

Speaking of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), Kugelman said that the organisation has been ineffective in establishing closer ties among its member-nations. Further, he opined that the US must leverage its ’Observer’ status in the SAARC to push through more integration efforts. He welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s endeavour to promote solidarity in the region by inviting SAARC leaders to attend his swearing in ceremony.

In responding to a question on the proposed energy corridors in this region - IPI (Iran, Pakistan, India) and TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) gas pipelines, he said that the IPI pipeline shows more promise and has a higher probability of materialising. However, Washington’s dysfunctional relationship with Iran and Pakistan’s apprehension in financing its end of the pipeline will serve as major impediments to this project. On the positive side, the recent P-5+1 brokered Geneva agreement will suspend the petro-chemical export sanctions placed on Iran, making this project more realistic.

Greater attention to Bangladesh

Kugelman said Bangladesh is not given its due importance in South Asian policy discourse. South Asian policy imperatives are largely centred on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He opined that Bangladesh holds a critical position in this region, owing to its geo-strategic significance. Although not volatile as Afghanistan or Pakistan, Bangladesh is still a vulnerable area and needs attention.

This year’s parliamentary election, which was boycotted by the major opposition party, the polarising war-crime trails and the ensuing public unrest reflect the nation’s vulnerability. Also, Bangladesh has significant trade ties with the US. He opined that Washington must pay closer attention to Bangladesh.

New push for India-Pakistan reconciliation

Kugelman said that it would be delusional to expect complete peace and normalisation between India and Pakistan in the foreseeable future. There are several major issues, including the ’Kashmir question’ and cross-border terrorism on which there is no convergence of views among nations.

The ascendency of the BJP to power in the recently-concluded Indian elections has made Pakistan more anxious. The role of the military in Pakistan cannot be understated. There has been a contention between the military and the democratically-elected government in Pakistan.

Considering the complex political ties strained by territorial disputes, Kugelman recommended that Washington must strictly focus on trade relations between India and Pakistan. He stated that reconstituting economic ties might pave the way for further political reconciliation on outstanding issues.

Kugelman noted that India had extended the MFN (Most Favoured Nation) status to Pakistan in 2008, and action is due from Pakistan to remove its list of goods that cannot be traded with India. He observed that Washington can use its good offices to facilitate better trade relationship between the two nations, share intelligence on counter-terrorism operations and conduct behind-the-scene diplomacy to sustain peace in conflict-prone zones.

Humble expectations

Kugelman noted that the US aid and assistance in this (South Asian) region does not translate into sufficient leverage to mediate policy initiatives required to secure US interests in the region. Resurgence of the Afghan Taliban in the wake of US exit from the country, Washington’s turbulent relations with Islamabad in recent times and weakened ties with India in the past couple of years have certainly deepened the challenges faced by US in this region.

South Asia is plagued by a cornucopia of issues and Washington must be realistic in its expectations. A robust action against militancy and elimination of terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan must be Washington’s top priority in this region, he said.

’Pivot Asia’

Speaking specifically on the present situation in Afghanistan, Kugelman observed that the nation fared better than Iraq. Unlike Iraq, where the departure of the US forces had left the nation in a state of disarray, in Afghanistan, residuary US troops would be stationed. Iraq was also beset with deep sectarian factions, which enabled further disintegration of the State.

The high turnout in the recent Afghanistan elections reflects the pro- democratic view of a large section of population and their commitment to secure peace and stability, Kugelman said. He also noted that the Afghan- Taliban is a highly fractured organisation and insurgency has weakened in the recent times. The Afghan-Taliban should not be a cause for concern as long as the terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan are eliminated. He also ruled out any prospective US negotiations with the Afghan-Taliban.

Commenting on the recently-concluded mid-term elections in US and its impact on US foreign policy towards South Asia, Kugelman opined that a Republican-heavy government would not have any major impact on Washington’s policy towards this region, or India. He acknowledged the popular view-point that Republican governments in the US have a tendency to work closer with India. However, Kugelman clarified that closer ties with India does not translate into hostile relations with Pakistan. Washington would continue to value its relationship with Pakistan despite the recent turbulences.

Responding to a question on the ascending Chinese dominance in the South Asian region and its implications for US policy, Kugleman said the Obama Administration’s "Pivot Asia" policy is geared towards balancing power relations in this region. If executed in its entirety, Washington may develop closer ties with India and deepen relations with South-East Asian nations to counter balance Chinese assertiveness in the region.

He said presently Washington’s top priority is the West Asian crisis, ISIS and Ebola. India-US relations though, not inconsequential, is not Washington’s top priority for now. Nevertheless, Washington would continue to work closely with the new government in India to foster closer economic ties and cooperate in counter-terrorism operations.

(This report is prepared by Deepak Vijayaraghavan, Chennai)

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