Related Articles Commentary Paper SIIS Report
Jan 01 0001
US Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and Restructuring In South Asia
By Zhao Gancheng
On June 23, 2011, US president Barack Obama made a strategic decision on American presence in Afghanistan-Pakistan area: the U.S. will begin to withdraw its troops in July this year, and by the summer next year, a total 33,000 American troops will have been back home. The announcement has triggered global responses. Many analyses link the president’s decision with the killing of Osama bin Laden, which took place more than one month ago in Pakistan. In fact, the president did relate the two issues in his speech at the White House. The United States believes that the US-led war against terror has made significant progress, and that the US Af-Pak strategy will be adjusted under relatively favorable conditions. That seemingly optimistic tone has caused different reactions among analysts. For instance, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial that day thought that Obama’s speech is encouraging, and it can improve political support for him domestically, but in the Fox News, the commentator believed that Obama’s move showed that he did not learn from previous mistakes, and that the president would go to another side. He has set up an unrealistic time framework for ending the Afghan war. [1] The difference in relevant comments on the president’s decision reflects the reality in the U.S. that the Obama administration’s Af-Pak strategy has not yet won domestic consensus, and naturally, it would lead to different views in the international community. On the other hand, when the U.S. decides to withdraw quite a number of troops from Afghanistan, the event will impose impact on the security structure of the region. This article tries to evaluate both the status quo and trend of South Asia regional situation, beginning with an analysis on the latest American moves.
I. Geopolitical Effects of the Death of bin Laden
On May 1st, 2011, U.S. special force launched an attack on the residence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan without notifying the Pakistani authorities, and killed the head of al Qaeda. Since the U.S. waged the war against the Taliban regime, bin Laden remained as a major target, and the fact that the U.S. military did not accomplish the mission for nearly 10 years became a significant trouble. As the founder of al Qaeda and planner of 9/11 terrorist attacks, bin Laden had been a decisive symbol in the US-led war against terror. From American perspectives, killing bin Laden means a destructive strike on the international organizations. That was why there were many people rushing to streets in the U.S. to celebrate the victory. But the American move might yet have to answer two fundamental questions. One is whether killing bin Laden who was nothing more than a political symbol would bring more stability to South Asia, or actually just the opposite, leading to more violence? The other is what the U.S. and its allies are going to do next in Afghanistan, especially concerning their large military presence there that has been increasingly unpopular in their own countries?

As the US special force launched sudden attack without notifying or seeking approval from the Pakistani authorities, the mission has been perceived as a violation against Pakistani sovereignty. And the capability of both the Pakistani government and military has been questioned. The Pakistani public are angry with their own government that has cooperated with the U.S. for a long time but only got such a bad outcome. Sentiments like this are likely to cause more turbulence. Many analyses believe that international terrorist organizations would choose Pakistan as an ideal place to implement their retaliation attacks. Meanwhile, the U.S. has also questioned whether Pakistan really cooperates with the U.S. to strike terrorists, and the essence of the question is to challenge the validity of US-Pak cooperation. The Pakistani government is under attacks from the two sides, and has been in extreme difficulties since then. Conclusions from these developments tend to be pessimistic. Killing bin Laden may not bring more stability to the region, and more turbulence in Pakistan would be the signals of dangerous situation.

Perhaps being aware of the fact that criticisms on the Pakistani government would do more harm rather than good to American strategic interests, important American officials like John Kerry, chairman of Foreign Relations Committee of U.S. Senate, and State Secretary Hillary Clinton, have paid visits to Islamabad after the death of bin Laden, reiterating that US cooperation with Pakistan remains unchanged, and that the U.S. sees stability of Pakistan as a crucial part of anti-terror campaign. The U.S. will continue to support the Pakistani government and military to strike terrorist forces. Compared with President Obama’s initial argument that the U.S. would investigate the domestic supportive network in Pakistan for terrorists, the U.S is likely to keep Pakistan as strategic partner, and the importance of Pakistan in US anti-terror strategy does not decline after the death of bin Laden. In other words, the U.S. cannot pursue a strategy in the region that regards Pakistan as hostile force, because doing so would only lead to further instability in the region, that does not fit the goal of US-led war in Afghanistan. Besides, the American drone bases in Pakistan are an indispensable part of its military tactics in the region. In fact, the Pakistani government has demanded shut-down of these bases because the U.S. never takes care of Pakistan’s sovereign concerns, but the demands are turned down by the U.S.[2] US-Pakistan relations may see some new variables in the future out of the death of bin Laden.

Another geopolitical effect of Killing bin Laden may be relevant to the military presence of both the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. Over the years, the U.S. has seen Afghanistan as a political benchmark in its anti-terror war, but the reality of Afghanistan has challenged American strategic goals. In the presidential campaign of 2008, Obama committed to American public to end both Iraq and Afghan wars waged by the Bush administration. Even though it was a commitment in election, American public have been fed up with the long lasting wars. That has to be the background of Obama’s commitment. But the reality of Afghanistan makes Washington hesitant to make decisions. On December 1st , 2009, Obama announced an increase of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, and also declared July 1st , 2011 would be the date to begin with withdrawal of American troops from the nation. Therefore, the more deployment served for a strategic goal to get rid of international terrorist forces in Afghanistan. That goal certainly includes eliminating al Qaeda, but whether it also includes Taliban is not clear. Perhaps it is a question President Obama might find hard to answer. And it is Taliban that really makes the Afghan situation extremely uncertain. Killing bin Laden does give a heavy blow to al Qaeda, but comparatively, Taliban is a far more deeply rooted organization among the ordinary people in Afghanistan. Its pure Islamic ideology also attracts the grass-root folks who may not like the western values. During the last ten years, the U.S. has successfully propped up the Karzai government and helped Afghanistan copy the western style election into the nation’s political process, but the Karzai government is yet unable to control most parts of the nation. That simple fact may indicate that copying a western democracy into an Islamic state that has its unique tradition is difficult mission.

Whether Taliban will change its scheme featured with military attacks, thanks to the death of bin Laden? The question remains unanswered. Meanwhile, the U.S. has reportedly begun some sort of contact with Taliban, hoping to seek new ways of negotiations with the organization in the post-bin-Laden period. The result out of the contact could determine American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US move is operated with the assistance of the Karzai government, and the latter actually announced it to the public. This is consistent with the Karzai government’s position to call for a political solution to the Afghan issue. However, there is a timeline problem. The next presidential campaign has already been unfolded in the U.S. The Af-Pak issue was the only foreign policy issue in the presidential candidates debates in the last campaign when the democrat candidate Obama made serious commitments to the constituents. So far, nobody knows whether foreign policy issues would be excluded in this campaign, or American public may only concern about jobs, but for President Obama who is looking forward to his next term at the White House, the Af-Pak issue may not be supposed to be a forgotten issue. And frankly, his will alone does not decide the situation, either. For this matter, the successive visits by Senator Kerry and Secretary Clinton to Pakistan are aimed at creating a more favorable atmosphere after the good news of killing bin Laden, and the president’s announcement of withdrawing 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan may also serve for the similar goal, that is highly relevant to the campaign. The White House cannot only wait for good news indefinitely.

II. Rebuilding Regional Structure in South Asia
The US decision to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan imposes similar impact as what the Bush administration’s decision to wage the war did 10 year ago on South Asia. US strategies greatly change the security and political structure in the region. The fact that South Asia becomes the hotbed of international terrorists lies in deep historic background including the cold war legacy like US policy options after the Soviets had quitted from Afghanistan, and the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural features that are mingled with historic disputes in the region, leading to deep hatred spreading. After 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. shifted its strategic priority towards anti-terrorism. The Afghan war was the first attempt, that led to the collapse of the Taliban regime and disintegration of al Qaeda. However, most analyses agree that it was not the end of anti-terror campaign. Over the last ten years, the disintegrated international terrorist organizations have spread in the whole South Asian region. Besides, Taliban continuously resist the US-led forces. The war headed by the U.S. has been in a stalemate, which has led to changes of South Asia security structure.

Over the ten years, Afghanistan has become the focus of regional security. Lots of disputes take place between India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, or India and Afghanistan. The parties have made sacrifice, and tried to attribute the harms by terrorism to other parties. Meanwhile, the parties have different views on the strong military presence led by the U.S. in the region. The difference exists not only among the governments, but also within one country. For instance, Pakistani people have different views about the American behaviors in the region. One the one hand, the Pakistani government has made many efforts to cooperate with the U.S. to strike terrorist forces, and the government has also got lots of military and economic aid from the U.S. as well. On the other hand, the Pakistani public are fed up with their own government’s cooperation with the U.S., believing that the US-led war against terror aims at the Muslin world. Why should their government cooperate with the U.S. to serve for the evil target? Meanwhile, India has been very suspicious about US-Pak cooperation, believing that India is the victim to the international terrorist forces that are based in Pakistan. Such accusations impose negative impacts on regional stability and peace. It is one of the main reasons why a security structure in the region is hard to build up.

Both the killing of bin Laden and Obama’s announcement of getting American troops out of Afghanistan will impact South Asia in many ways. One of the important developments may focus on how to rebuild the regional security structure. As South Asia is full of instable variables, a workable framework of security structure may be necessary for peace. The U.S. has been in war for ten years there, and also propped up the Karzai regime according to the American model. However, the government does not seem to have the capability to build up such a framework in the region. In fact, if the US-led forces are out of Afghanistan, the stability and sustainability of the Karzai government could be a big problem. Therefore, it is unlikely to be a major player. The question is then who would be the main players in South Asia regional security if the US-led forces have to leave Afghanistan for whatever reasons? So far, the assumption is very risky, because there is no evidence that the U.S. and its allies want to end their military presence in Afghanistan. Besides, Obama’s decision to begin withdrawal is also seen as not very much mature by American field commanders. However, even if the U.S. would keep certain presence in Afghanistan in the future, the prospect is yet quite different from the current situation where the U.S. deploys hundred thousands troops and spends tens billions of dollars for expenditure. Despite the fact that the White House does not yet announce the final plan regarding Afghanistan, John O. Brennan, homeland security and counter-terrorism advisor to President Obama, issued a new counter-terrorism strategy on June 29, 2011, which “designates the homeland as a primary area of emphasis in US counter-terrorism efforts ”. [3] Mr. Brennan’s elaboration on US anti-terror strategy presents some new signs seemingly regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. Generally, the US gesture in South Asia is likely to shrink in the future. That possibility could raise the issue of rebuilding South Asia security structure.

Viewing from the perspectives of stakeholders in and out of South Asia, one could argue that maintaining stability of Af-Pak areas fits interests of all the relevant parties. One of the conditions to do so is to promote reconciliation in the areas where conflicts are intense, whether it is ethnic conflict or religious one or that between different social systems. This is the lesson to learn from history. Outside forces invading into the region could win military victory, but lasting stability and peace would not be achieved without reconciliation. The contemporary Afghan issue stemmed from interference and invasion by the outside force, and it will not be ended with similar interference and invasion. Afghan stability requires collaboration among the parties for their positions and finally for consensus.

First of all, India and Pakistan need to have talks over the Afghan situation in the post-bin-Laden period. So far, the two sides mainly criticize each other. India has invested hugely in Afghanistan, actively participating in all the processes. India believes that seeking reconciliation with Taliban is impossible. India regards herself as a big victim to international terrorism, and asks the international community to do as much as possible to prevent Taliban from backing to power. But the international community seems not to buy India’s position. Pakistan even does not see India’s engagement in Afghan affairs as legitimate, such as Indian maintenance of four consulates and one embassy in Afghanistan. Pakistan believes that Indian interest in Afghanistan mainly aims at Pakistan. Solving differences like this requires more collaboration and communications. The important fact is that India does have a decisive role to play in South Asia. Any feasible structure for South Asian security would not do without India’s positive participation.

Second, there is need for Pakistan and Afghanistan to reach consensus on a couple of important issues. For a long time, the Karzai government has been critical to Islamabad, arguing that the instability of Afghanistan is mainly attributed to insufficient efforts on the Pakistani side to strike terrorists, and also to the reality that large groups of international terrorists are based in Pakistan, who impose major threat to Afghanistan. Criticism like these is refuted severely by Pakistan. But mutual accusation is not a solution to the problems ahead of them. Pakistan has paid enormous costs in the anti-terror war, including the heavy casualties in the retaliation attacks by international terrorists after the death of bin Laden. If the U.S. retreats from the region, Af-Pak cooperation would become the priority for maintaining regional stability. That requires the two countries to join hand in hand to handle international terrorist organizations, whether they are in the territory of Afghanistan or Pakistan. They have to strike terrorism not for sake of American security, but for sake of their own development and their people’s welfare. Viewing from fundamental interests of the two countries, what is important is their own future, not American interests.

Third, there are important regional organizations in the region that should play bigger roles, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization ( SCO ) and South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation ( SAARC ). The SCO already accepted India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as observers, and in SAARC, the three nations are the major members. However, these regional organizations have not yet played their proper role in South Asian regional security. Maintaining regional stability is supposed to be the natural task for regional organizations, and for this case, the SCO and SAARC are best vehicle to carry out the principle of Asians managing Asian affairs. With the development of situation, how to make the regional organizations play bigger roles in maintaining regional security and building up security structure will be put on agenda. The legitimacy of the regional organizations in security affairs may be enhanced through enlargement by accepting more nations as full members. [4] Regarding the SAARC, China is already an observer. If the SAARC wants to play a bigger role in regional security, accepting China as a full member should be a rational option.

Finally, the big powers in the periphery of South Asia should care about the situation in the region. The U.S. and its allies are mostly the outside forces. South Asia regional stability is much more relevant to its neighbors rather than to the western powers. These neighbors include China, Russia, and also Iran and even Turkey. They have to watch and follow what is going on in South Asia, and they need to communicate with each other, when necessary, they should invest more in helping Afghanistan and Pakistan for their nation building and ethnic reconciliation to constrain extremist forces, because that will be in interest of the region and its neighbors as well. That will be the guarantee for regional security and stability.           

Source of documents

more details:

[1] Indirectly quoted from Xin Jing Bao, June 24, 2011: Major Global Media’s Comments on Obama’s Decision to Withdraw from Afghanistan. Beijing.
[2] Can Kao Xiao Xi: The U.S. refuses to stop drones in Pakistan, quoted from the Reuters and Associated Press, July 3, 2011.
[3] New US counter-terrorism strategy focuses more on homeland security
[4] After death of bin Laden, Pakistani Prime Minister Guilani visited Russia and China. In Moscow, Mr. Guilani raised the request for Pakistan to become full member of the SCO. In the following summit for the tenth anniversary of SCO in Astana, Kazakhstan, a basic framework for absorbing new members was reached.