Reorienting U.S. Security Strategy in South Asia

India and PakistanThe U.S. strategic calculus has shifted considerably following the death of Osama bin Laden, with the Obama administration now likely to increase the pace of its proposed troop withdrawal in Afghanistan as a result. Both Congress and the American public are now pressuring Washington to precipitate a quicker drawdown. Furthermore, growing concern over the national debt has increased the prospect of widespread austerity measures and places downward pressure on the administration and Congress to dramatically reduce the scope of U.S. military commitments in the Middle East and South Asia in the near future.

Despite this, the Obama administration must avoid policies of the past, which treated much of South Asia as an afterthought. Asia’s status as a significant future geopolitical center of gravity will require strong U.S. engagement in the region, particularly with Pakistan, despite current tension. Overheated domestic rhetoric must not sway the administration. Washington must consider larger regional concerns and be willing to change its approach if it hopes to ensure future stability once it begins to withdraw its troops from the region.

Tunnel Vision

The American misadventure in Afghanistan has incurred tremendous costs in both blood and money. As it currently stands, U.S. forces have suffered over 11,000 casualties (1,500 fatalities) in Afghanistan and spent nearly $430 billion in pursuit of illusory aims, such as the creation of a centralized, modern state out of a loosely conglomerated system of tribes. However, an often-uncounted casualty of the “War on Terror” has been U.S. engagement within the broader region outside of Afghanistan.

It is certainly understandable that successive U.S. administrations would place engagement on other regional issues on hold until the immediate problem of Afghanistan was solved. However in doing so the United States has blinded itself to the broader picture, and ironically, damaged its hopes of achieving its more limited aims in the process. In pursuing the more limited and local problem of Afghanistan (now widened to Pakistan), the United States failed to implement a strategy that addresses the systemic source of the region’s instability — namely India-Pakistan relations. Indeed, the chief problem of U.S. strategy in South Asia thus far is that it hasn’t dared to dream big enough.

The shifting U.S. focus on Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now back to Afghanistan has combined with other policy initiatives — such as deepening its relationship with India to balance rising Chinese regional influence — to significantly limit U.S. efforts to resolve outstanding grievances between India and Pakistan. This inattention to the grander scale has contributed to the general climate of instability in the region and has directly countered U.S. efforts in Afghanistan over the past decade.

In particular, tensions between India and Pakistan have had a profound effect on limiting Pakistani support for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. The U.S. request for Pakistani assistance in the “War on Terror” gave rise to the paradox that has plagued Pakistani security policy since. Offering such assistance runs counter to Pakistan’s own historical national security strategy vis-à-vis its chief rival, India.

Since gaining their independence in 1947 from the British Empire, India and Pakistan have fought three wars and come perilously close to war numerous other times. The contested region of Kashmir remains the world’s most dangerous flashpoint. After witnessing India become a nuclear power in 1974, Pakistan, under the leadership of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, famously “ate grass” in order to establish nuclear parity.

In addition to its development of a nuclear deterrent, Pakistani fear of Indian conventional superiority, coupled with a pervasive fear of encirclement, caused Pakistan to develop ties with a number of non-state actors and terrorist organizations. These include the Afghan Taliban (and by extension, al Qaeda, although al Qaeda is known to maintain ties with the other groups listed as well), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Harakat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) as well as the Haqqani network. It is open to debate how much control Pakistan, in particular the military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is able to exert over these groups. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that they have lost what control they had. Despite this, Pakistan’s unique internal system of autonomous political entities (such as the military and ISI) means that many of these groups likely continue to rely on elements of the Pakistani state for material support. For example, the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi and the 2008 attack in Mumbai were attributed to groups with strong ties to the ISI. Recent evidence also indicates that Osama bin Laden likely received support while living in Pakistan from at least one organization (Harakat ul-Mujahideen) with known ties to the ISI.

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the loss of U.S. interest in the region, Pakistan moved quickly to strengthen relations with the nascent movement known as the Taliban and assist their triumph in the Afghan civil war. This policy was the direct result of Pakistan’s interest in securing its western flank, preventing Indian encirclement, and thereby allowing it to turn all its attention toward India. This policy continued until the attacks of September 11, 2001 when the United States demanded Pakistan turn on its ally, the Taliban.

Despite overt gestures of cooperation, Pakistan was careful not to upset its strategic interest in maintaining a strong proxy cadre for use against India. As a result, Pakistani assistance in the “War on Terror” has largely been mitigated by its continued efforts to ensure the survival of the very groups it has promised to help the United States weed out and destroy.

This policy is probably not directed from the top. Indeed, any characterization of Pakistan as a unitary actor would be fallacious. Portions of the military and ISI, whose primary concern is the strategic challenge posed by India, operate largely without constraints or civilian oversight. As a result of this strategic calculus, Pakistan has not and will never be the strategic ally the United States wants or needs. Indeed, so long as Pakistan’s overriding security concern emanates from India, U.S. and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan will diverge.

Five Minutes to Midnight

The greatest threat to regional security (although curiously not at the top of most lists of U.S. regional concerns) is the possibility that increased India-Pakistan tension will erupt into all-out war that could quickly escalate into a nuclear exchange. Indeed, in just the past two decades, the two neighbors have come perilously close to war on several occasions. India and Pakistan remain the most likely belligerents in the world to engage in nuclear war.

Due to an Indian preponderance of conventional forces, Pakistan would have a strong incentive to use its nuclear arsenal very early on before a routing of its military installations and weaker conventional forces. In the event of conflict, Pakistan’s only chance of survival would be the early use of its nuclear arsenal to inflict unacceptable damage to Indian military and (much more likely) civilian targets. By raising the stakes to unacceptable levels, Pakistan would hope that India would step away from the brink. However, it is equally likely that India would respond in kind, with escalation ensuing. Neither state possesses tactical nuclear weapons, but both possess scores of city-sized bombs like those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Furthermore, as more damage was inflicted (or as the result of a decapitating strike), command and control elements would be disabled, leaving individual commanders to respond in an environment increasingly clouded by the fog of war and decreasing the likelihood that either government (what would be left of them) would be able to guarantee that their forces would follow a negotiated settlement or phased reduction in hostilities. As a result any such conflict would likely continue to escalate until one side incurred an unacceptable or wholly debilitating level of injury or exhausted its nuclear arsenal.

A nuclear conflict in the subcontinent would have disastrous effects on the world as a whole. In a January 2010 paper published in Scientific American, climatology professors Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon forecast the global repercussions of a regional nuclear war. Their results are strikingly similar to those of studies conducted in 1980 that conclude that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would result in a catastrophic and prolonged nuclear winter, which could very well place the survival of the human race in jeopardy. In their study, Robock and Toon use computer models to simulate the effect of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan in which each were to use roughly half their existing arsenals (50 apiece). Since Indian and Pakistani nuclear devices are strategic rather than tactical, the likely targets would be major population centers. Owing to the population densities of urban centers in both nations, the number of direct casualties could climb as high as 20 million.

The fallout of such an exchange would not merely be limited to the immediate area. First, the detonation of a large number of nuclear devices would propel as much as seven million metric tons of ash, soot, smoke, and debris as high as the lower stratosphere. Owing to their small size (less than a tenth of a micron) and a lack of precipitation at this altitude, ash particles would remain aloft for as long as a decade, during which time the world would remain perpetually overcast. Furthermore, these particles would soak up heat from the sun, generating intense heat in the upper atmosphere that would severely damage the earth’s ozone layer. The inability of sunlight to penetrate through the smoke and dust would lead to global cooling by as much as 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit. This shift in global temperature would lead to more drought, worldwide food shortages, and widespread political upheaval.

Although the likelihood of this doomsday scenario remains relatively low, the consequences are dire enough to warrant greater U.S. and international attention. Furthermore, due to the ongoing conflict over Kashmir and the deep animus held between India and Pakistan, it might not take much to set them off. Indeed, following the successful U.S. raid on bin Laden’s compound, several members of India’s security apparatus along with conservative politicians have argued that India should emulate the SEAL Team Six raid and launch their own cross-border incursions to nab or kill anti-Indian terrorists, either preemptively or after the fact. Such provocative action could very well lead to all-out war between the two that could quickly escalate.

Opportunity Knocks

The death of bin Laden and the recent announcement by the Obama administration that it will start drawing down forces in Afghanistan presents the United States the ideal opportunity to refocus its regional attention to the confrontational India-Pakistan relationship. Progress on India-Pakistan relations is not a silver bullet that will cure all the region’s troubles. However, lessening tensions will help alleviate a great number of pressures currently contributing to regional instability. First and foremost it will lessen the likelihood of a regional great power war. This will, in turn, reduce Pakistan’s need to support transnational terrorist proxies and help the United States achieve its narrower goals of reducing these groups’ ability to conduct large-scale attacks against the United States or its allies.

Moving forward, the United States must seek to engage India and Pakistan in serious diplomatic discussions over the future security structure of South Asia. Along with its European allies and other regional actors, the United States needs to engage in efforts to help implement confidence-building measures between the two neighbors. A potential starting framework could be based on the now-defunct Lahore Agreement of 1999.

In particular, the United States should use its influence in Pakistan and India to encourage the establishment of back channels between their respective defense and foreign ministries. To increase transparency between the two, the United States should also encourage inter-military informational and personnel exchanges. Furthermore, the United States should seek to further develop Indian and Pakistani understanding of nuclear deterrence strategy and methods for rapid communication similar to those that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The creation of concrete diplomatic channels between India and Pakistan will help lessen the likelihood of miscalculation or misinterpretation of the other’s actions by facilitating communication during future periods of heightened tension. In addition to helping develop a more robust inter-military exchange, the United States along with other allies should encourage the private sectors of India and Pakistan to engage in more cooperative economic ventures to boost confidence-building.

In order to further promote regional stability, the United States must modify its strategy of providing economic and military assistance, primarily with regards to Pakistan. The United States must place a greater emphasis on economic and civilian assistance programs and exhibit greater caution when dispersing military aid. The conditional dispersal of security aid coupled with increased civil support will help strengthen civilian control over Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies. This will require the United States to conduct more rigorous oversight of its aid programs and increase efforts to ensure that U.S. aid is not being directed against India either through the purchase of large-scale conventional arms, enhancing Pakistan’s nuclear program, or funding terrorist proxy organizations.

With regards to India, the United States, along with its European allies should seek to limit the sale of large-scale weapons systems and dual-use materials. India already maintains an overwhelming conventional advantage over Pakistan. Strengthening this advantage further will only increase the likelihood that Pakistan will resort to its nuclear arsenal in the case of conflict. Although the United States and Europe profit greatly from the supply of heavy weapons systems to the subcontinent, such policies are profoundly shortsighted and greatly increase the risk of catastrophic conflict.

The United States should offer assistance to both India and Pakistan in securing their nuclear sites and weaponry to decrease the risk of nuclear material or devices falling into the wrong hands or rogue state agents. Furthermore, Washington should help India and Pakistan develop more robust early warning capabilities. An early-warning system lowers the incentives attached to launching a first strike. Because neither India nor Pakistan maintains a credible second-strike capability, they each have a larger incentive to strike first. This situation is further exacerbated by the ballistic missile arsenals maintained by both states that could deliver a nuclear payload to their targets in as little as five minutes. An early-warning radar system is purely defensive, would help diminish the prevailing hair-trigger situation, and is vital to establishing a more stable deterrent system.

The United States, in tandem with its international allies, should also seek serious engagement with India and Pakistan over the subject of Kashmir. Although getting India and Pakistan to agree on a peace settlement over Kashmir will require diplomatic savvy, such a settlement is not impossible. Steve Coll of the New America Foundation offers a settlement framework that would require India to draw down its military presence, rescind the Special Powers Act, establish the Line of Control as an international border, and allow Kashmir and Jammu to exist as autonomous regions. Such a straightforward framework offers a starting point for discussions on Kashmir. A solution will be difficult to achieve, but any positive movement on the subject of Kashmir will greatly reduce the risk of future conflict.

The United States should continue to implement its 2014 force reduction from Afghanistan but should continue to assist the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan in disrupting and diminishing the destabilizing effects of terrorist organizations and other non-state actors. The United States should also work with the governments of India and Pakistan to encourage cooperation and joint action to prevent terrorist organizations from striking in India. This would limit the possibility that India would act unilaterally or engage in risky cross-border action into Pakistan to preempt terrorist attacks. Furthermore, such a program would encourage further dialogue between more moderate elements of the Pakistani and Indian governments, and allow them to engage cooperatively to serve their respective interests.

Finally, the United States should reduce its current overreliance on unmanned drones to carry out surgical strikes. Although this has been an attractive military option given the speed and low cost at which individual missions can be carried out, drones have become a focal point of fear and hatred among local communities, and have served to unify resistance among disparate insurgent groups.

Positive movement in the India-Pakistan relationship would go a long way to stabilizing the region. Although transnational terrorism remains a serious concern, it does not carry the same existential threat as does the risk of a regional nuclear war. Reducing Indian-Pakistani tensions will alleviate the need for Pakistan to continue its support for terrorist proxies and bring their national security interests more in line with those of the United States. Movement on this underlying issue will have a positive impact on many other regional concerns and help bring to an end the chronic instability that has plagued the region for the past 50 years. The United States has been presented with a fantastic opportunity to drastically change the focus of its regional strategy and bring about greater stability in South Asia. This opportunity is too good to pass up.

Greg Chaffin is a research assistant with Foreign Policy In Focus.