South Asia's Separation Anxiety

South Asia's Separation Anxiety

U.S. withdrawal could bring a new Afghan civil war—or worse, the division of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghan president Karzai, Vice President Biden, President Obama and Pakistani president ZardariAs the Obama administration ponders a more rapid withdrawal of American troops in light of the recent killing spree by a troubled staff sergeant, observers in South Asia see a bleak future as ethnic rivalries and unsettled scores continue to haunt the region.

Indian observers pointedly note that their country was not consulted prior to President Obama’s announcement of American withdrawal by 2014. Nor, they add, has India been brought into the process that is meant to result in a stable Afghanistan once that withdrawal takes place. And they see little evidence of Washington attempting to engage key Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan—such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—whose policies could have a significant impact on that country’s future.

Afghanistan: Divide and Conquer?

India’s grievances are linked to a more ominous development. It appears that the region’s major actors, India and Pakistan, are both anticipating a renewal of civil war in Afghanistan, with Pakistan backing the Pashtun-dominated Taliban and India supporting a revived Northern Alliance consisting primarily of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks. It was precisely such an alignment of forces that led to the Taliban’s triumph in the late 1990s, followed by its sponsorship of al-Qaeda and the trauma of 9/11.

Indeed, President Karzai’s seemingly erratic relations with the United States can best be understood in terms of his concern about the future cohesion of his country once American forces depart. Should anything remotely like this civil-war scenario manifest itself again, America’s decade-long war will have been for naught.

Some South Asian experts outline an even more troubling scenario: the division of Afghanistan into two states, one dominated by the Taliban and the other run by the Northern Alliance, followed by a similar breakup of Pakistan into a Pashtu North, a Baluch West and a Punjabi-Sindhi Center. Such developments, however unlikely, cannot be dismissed outright—after all, such a breakup is exactly what happened to both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

In some respects, a breakup of Afghanistan is less likely than a similar scenario in Pakistan. Afghans are a quarrelsome, ethnically driven lot, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, their polity has held together for centuries, precisely because Afghanistan has rarely been governed by a strong central authority; indeed, the most powerful ruler in Kabul, Dost Mohammed, reigned over 150 years ago. It is their very sense of autonomy that prompts Afghans to unite so forcefully in the face of outside threats and retain their allegiance to their Afghan identity.

Pakistan’s Shaky Foundation

The case of Pakistan is entirely different. The country’s history dates back only six decades; its identity is essentially a negative one: it is the Muslim non-India. But its raison d’être has long been threatened by three uncomfortable facts.

First, its Muslim population, numbering just under 200 million, is smaller than that of Hindu-dominated India. (Pakistan also includes small Parsi and Christian communities.)

Second, Pakistan remains a feudal country and the economy, despite occasional spurts, has been in the doldrums for decades when compared with India’s surging GDP growth.

Third, despite the supposed glue of Islam, Pakistan has long struggled with a low-level insurrection from the Baluch ethnic group, which has now been paralleled by a Pashtu-dominated fundamentalist threat to the power of the entrenched Punjabi and Sindhi elites. All of these factors point to the potential for dissolution; the fact that it is a nuclear power adds to the deep concern about its future that permeates expert opinion in South Asia, not least in India.

The Obama administration certainly is sensitive to the worries about Pakistan’s future. But it does not appear to be doing much about it. It is clear that the administration will fight to ensure that aid is not cut off by a Congress used to imposing sanctions on Islamabad. (Indians also worry about losing the cooperation of Congress, especially since New Delhi currently maintains a trade relationship with Tehran against Washington’s wishes. Fear that Congress could impose sanctions or cut off arms deals makes India reluctant to commit more forcefully to military cooperation with the United States.) Nor is there much evidence that Washington has engaged New Delhi in discussions on preserving a cohesive, united Pakistan, which is clearly in India’s interest as well.

Finally, South Asians are worried that the administration’s vaunted “pivot” toward Asia does not include their region but rather is exclusively directed toward the east and southeast of that continent. There is a feeling that, once again, Washington is beating a hasty retreat from Afghanistan as it did in the 1990s, only this time it is fueled by a decade’s worth of war-weariness.

DC Damage Control

The administration denies it is doing anything of the sort. It points to President Obama’s visit to India and the U.S.-Indian agreement on civilian-nuclear development as indicators of Washington’s ongoing efforts to deepen ties with New Delhi. It argues that the withdrawal of most combat troops from Afghanistan does not in any way signal that it is abandoning the country. And it asserts that it continues to expand its activities along the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which passes through Russia and Central Asia.

Washington’s responses to South Asian criticism are valid but only up to a point. The relationship with India appears to have lost momentum; the withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to send the wrong signals to the region; friction with Uzbekistan and uncertainty about relations with a Putin-led Russia call into question the future of a viable NDN. Most important of all, there is little evidence of a coherent American policy toward Pakistan.

It is difficult for any administration, particularly one in its first term, to generate new policies in an election year. Given America’s ongoing economic woes, this year poses a particular challenge for a president seeking reelection while his popularity is low. Nevertheless, as the administration moves ahead with its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it must counteract the growing impression that it is leaving the region without regard for new developments on the ground. If Washington fails to reassure South Asia, it may find that the price of inaction is far steeper and costlier than it ever anticipated.

Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He was named the DoD's coordinator for Afghan civilian reconstruction in 2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.