Advancing Sustainable Security in South Asia

Don’t Let the Recent Attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan Distract from Addressing South Asia’s Strategic Security Challenges

Don’t let the recent attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan distract from addressing South Asia’s strategic security challenges, writes Brian Katulis.

People gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Peshawar, Pakistan that killed 90 people. (AP/Mohammad Iqbal)
People gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Peshawar, Pakistan that killed 90 people. (AP/Mohammad Iqbal)

The spotlight on U.S. Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is shining even more brightly today as the region copes with a series of attacks, including a car bomb in the northwest Pakistan city of Peshawar that killed at least 90 people and targeted attacks against United Nations workers in the Afghan capital of Kabul

President Barack Obama is moving closer to making one of the most important decisions of his presidency, and today’s events and the uptick in violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent months underscore the need to advance stability in the region. The trick will be to react appropriately and proportionately to these recent events—almost certainly more attacks will occur—while continuing to advance a proactive and constructive strategy aimed at helping stabilize the region and integrate it with the rest of the world.

One key element of developing the right response to today’s challenges is to lay out a series of positive end goals for the region. A fundamental problem with U.S. policy in the region since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is that it has been reactive to events and stuck in operational and tactical issues, with no overarching strategic objectives or realistic end state in mind. The challenge that the Obama administration faces is not simply turning the page on the Bush administration’s years of neglect, inattention, and misguided policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan—it is moving beyond a reactive mode of security policy in South Asia.

Even in this new era of change and hope, President Obama continues to frame objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the negative—“to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” President Obama has a chance to set a broader vision and set positive goals—an opportunity he missed in March when he announced the results of his administration’s initial policy review.

One fundamental of the Obama administration’s national security approach seems clear—that its center of gravity and attention in the broader Middle East and South Asia is shifting eastward. The simplest metric demonstrating this shift are the costs—the federal government will spend more in the coming fiscal year on Afghanistan and Pakistan than Iraq, a broad measure of the recalibration of focus. It is not that the Obama administration will neglect the Arab-Israeli front or Iraq, which continue to pose difficult challenges. But dealing with Iran and addressing the security challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan will likely consume more energy, resources, and high-level focus in 2010 and beyond.

Pakistan is perhaps the most complicated of these challenges. It is a nuclear-armed country of about 170 million people with one of largest militaries in the world—a fighting force of 1.5 million including reserves—and has been used as a staging ground for global terror attacks for years. The country’s sheer size—it’s more populous than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran combined—along with the major security challenges that exist there—means that the Obama administration will likely focus even more resources there.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Pakistan today on a trip aimed at advancing bilateral cooperation on a range of issues—diplomatic, economic, and development assistance, in addition to the military and security cooperation. The Obama administration has sought to move beyond the “transactional” nature of the bilateral relationship and has worked to build enduring ties, and much work needs to be done here. As I argued after my last trip to Pakistan earlier this year, it is not enough to simply triple nonmilitary assistance to Pakistan, although that is a step in the right direction.

The United States needs to revive a partnership with Pakistan’s leaders and its people, as well as address the full range of human security challenges that plague the country. Pakistan will likely be the ultimate test case for whether the Obama administration can make its rhetoric on “smart power” actually work. Advancing sustainable security through development and diplomacy is easier said than done given the decades-long overinvestment in military means to advance U.S. national security. The brutal car bombing in Peshawar today should not distract from the long-term work that needs to be done to bring America’s relationship with Pakistan into the 21st century.

The Obama administration is also facing some difficult policy choices to the west in Afghanistan. More than two months after the flawed presidential elections and less than two weeks before the second round elections, the Obama administration is still considering all of its options. The massive fraud in the first round of the presidential elections was just the tip of the iceberg in a set of problems related to the question of whether the United States has partners in Afghanistan’s leaders—whether those leaders are working to fight the drug trade that fuels the Taliban insurgency and dealing with massive corruption problems. President Obama is likely to make his decision on Afghanistan in the coming weeks, and it seems likely that he may send more resources, including more troops.

But much of the debate over the past few months has focused on operational tactics, as opposed to strategic goals, and the Obama administration has remained locked in the decades-long reactive mode in South Asia. The one major exception are the threads of a fundamentally new policy approach in development in Pakistan—typified by the Kerry-Lugar bill that triples nonmilitary assistance. But the devil is in the details of implementation there, and more diplomatic, intelligence, and security cooperation between the two countries are needed. The second review of Afghanistan policy is presenting an opportunity to develop a fundamentally different proactive strategy.

Two key elements are missing at this stage in South Asia policy—a set of clearly defined positive goals for the region and more discussion on India’s important role on regional security dynamics. First, whatever choices President Obama makes at the conclusion of his second policy review on Afghanistan, he should take care to outline a positive vision and a set of goals that explains a viable end state in the region. The American people are open to spending more resources if it achieves tangible results, despite recent warranted skepticism about the war in Afghanistan. President Obama should make the case that America and its allies are working to build a sustainable security framework for South Asia—one that moves beyond the decades of war and violence that have claimed millions of lives and been a source of global instability.

The Obama adminsitration should set two clear end results for South Asia: 1) a stable and peaceful region of the world that is more integrated socially, economically, politically, and culturally; and 2) a region that has a functioning, just, and sustainable system of governance that provides security and the basic needs of its people. These are lofty goals, and it will take years to achieve. America cannot do it on its own. But it can be a leader in advancing a sustainable security agenda for South Asia.

The second missing element in the policy discussion is India’s role in achieving these goals. India, a regional power in South Asia and a rising global power, is a key partner for the United States, and we need to maintain a close and positive working relationship with India. Given how India is perceived in the region—particularly by Pakistan—it is vital to have a clearer discussion on the role that India can play in advancing a sustainable security framework in the broader region. This means addressing difficult issues such as the unresolved conflict between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, but also looking for ways to better leverage India’s role in contributing to economic prosperity in the region.

The Obama administration is poised to make important operational decisions on Afghanistan—but as it does so, it should take care to keep its eyes on the ultimate prize, which is a broader South Asia region that has a functioning sustainable security framework that no longer requires so much attention and resources from the United States by the end of the next decade.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow