Rethinking South Asia

A cobbled together bureaucracy and a cobbled together policy—not a good way to manage South Asia.

Obama's much-maligned Afpak policy scored the big one this weekend killing Osama bin Laden but it is still poorly organized for the challenges ahead. As the White House reorganizes the national security team, it should also reorganize the bureaucracy for dealing with South Asia. The U.S. government has consistently failed to see South Asia for what it is: a region with a shared environment, a shared cultural system, and its own strategic logic. Ignoring it or parceling it out conceptually and organizationally might have been an adequate response in the Cold War era, but its rise in importance demands a rethink of both American strategy and how the U.S. government is organized to deal with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This region, including the Indian Ocean, is too important now to be left to segmented and uncoordinated policy-making. To correct this, and to take advantage of new opportunities in South Asia, the U.S. must revise the obsolete civilian and military framework with which it approaches the region.

For the first time since the British departed South Asia, leaving behind two quarreling powers, the region has acquired the military and economic heft that it had during most of the Raj. The old Indian army not only made and kept the peace in the Middle East and South East Asia, it was a vital ally in two world wars. India was always one of the world’s largest economies, but it had stagnated under the British, who subordinated it to their own business interests. Now, India and Pakistan are both nuclear weapons states with powerful armies, and India is an economic success story rivaling China in terms of rates of growth. Nevertheless, America approaches the region much as it did during the extended Cold War: viewing it as a sideshow to Middle Eastern or East Asian matters.

South Asia is not merely a geographical name-place, it is a region tied together by climate, environment, strategy, social structure and military engagement:

The Environmental Imperative: Pakistan and India share a common ecology, including a Himalayan water source that also shapes the identities of Nepal and Bangladesh; as global climate change proceeds apace, this will have profound and probably disturbing consequences for the entire region unless carefully managed. This will require cooperation between and among the South Asian states.

The Strategic Imperative: South Asia was unified for at least five hundred years, first under the Mughals, then under the British. This integrated security complex has influenced Indian and Pakistani strategic thought profoundly: they share a common “strategic horizon” from Kabul to Colombo and from Dubai to Rangoon. For both—still rivals—the same ports, rivers and territories are vital, ensuring an enduring rivalry that could go on indefinitely.

The Socio-Cultural Imperative: Pakistanis and Indians share a lot socially and historically, excepting perhaps only religion, although even here India has the world’s fourth largest Muslim population, after Indonesia and two other South Asian states, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Afghans have been influenced by India throughout the 20th century, and Burma was officially part of the Raj until 1937. The caste system, indigenous to India, permeates most other South Asian states, notably Pakistan, and there is a widely shared popular culture, as well as large-scale intra-regional migration despite very hard borders.

The Military Imperative: India and Pakistan are locked in one of the most persistent conflicts in modern history, an ongoing strategic conundrum—both are nuclear powers, they fought four wars in less than sixty years, and they dispute territory (Kashmir) and resources (water). It is impossible to detach security in India from developments in Pakistan. And long-term stability in Afghanistan will necessarily depend on India-Pakistan normalization and stability in South Asia.

The (Missing) Economic Imperative: South Asia should be one of the world’s most economically integrated regions, but politics and rivalries are formidable barriers. However, should Indian trade with its neighbors reach levels last attained during the Raj, India’s powerful economy could help lift and transform its neighbors, creating the world’s fourth giant economic zone after the U.S., China, and the E.C.

In response to this complex but clearly identifiable region, the United States has cobbled together a strategy produced by a government structure that derives from the Cold War, a period in which the search for allies was the dominant imperative and India and Pakistan appeared to count for little in terms of the “hard” strategic calculations that often move governments. Thus, it took forty-five years to create a freestanding South Asia bureau—and even then only at Congressional prompting, and it was subsequently relegated to further insignificance by the addition of Central Asia to its portfolio.


- In the NSC: The South Asia director does not handle Afghanistan-Pakistan, which is in the hands of Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, and whatever cooperation there is between the operational directors for India and Pakistan is informal and not via common reporting channels.

- In the State Department: “SRAP” commands all things Af-Pak, leaving India and the rest of South Asia to an assistant secretary, who, while an expert, does not make policy for his entire region.

- In the Department of Defense: There are different Deputy Assistant Secretaries for India (DASD South and Southeast Asia) and Pakistan (DASD Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia)