Swing Region

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles

In the game of geopolitics, South Asia is the big swing region. It commands the very center of the vast Eurasian heartland, which the founders of geopolitics identified as pivotal to control of the globe. This preoccupation with the world’s most populous region — which brings together India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and several smaller states — unites neoconservatives obsessed with the threat of terrorism, practitioners of realpolitik like Zbigniew Brzezinski, and an anti-war movement that’s shifting its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Policymakers, stakeholders, and the rest of the international community are watching to see which way South Asia will go: economic powerhouse or global sinkhole?

Frankly, it doesn’t look so good. Afghanistan is descending into chaos. Taliban attacks have increased recently in Pakistan, including a suicide siege inside military headquarters in Rawalpindi. The Indian government and Maoist insurgents have ratcheted up their longstanding conflict. The Sri Lankan government just brutally eliminated the Tamil Tigers. The rising waters associated with global warming are claiming more and more of Bangladeshi territory. Corruption, authoritarian leaders, ethnic tensions, inter-communal violence, endemic poverty: It’s not a pretty picture.

For better or worse, Washington has long attempted to treat South Asia as a region. In the late 1970s, geopoliticians spoke of an arc of crisis in Southwest Asia. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, revolution broke out in Iran in the same year, and both India and Pakistan embarked on their nuclear programs. More recently, with the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special representative to a new entity called AfPak, the Obama administration has acknowledged that progress in one place requires progress in the other. Holbrooke even tried to expand his portfolio to include India, but New Delhi didn’t want to be drawn into an unhappy trio.

A regional approach seems sensible on the surface. Resolution of the war in Afghanistan will certainly require the help of other actors in the region, including Iran. Both India and Pakistan need to sit down to discuss a workable solution for the Kashmir province.

But the region itself has a rather weak sense of identity. South Asia’s regional organization — the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) — hasn’t done much other than negotiate a modest reduction of tariffs. The conflicts among the members have stalemated any serious actions. Neither India nor Pakistan wants to submit the Kashmir issue to regional mediation. Resolving the war in Afghanistan, which joined SAARC in 2007, isn’t on the organization’s agenda.

The weakness of SAARC, the friable nature of the national governments in the region, and the restiveness of subnational entities like Kashmir, Baluchistan, and Nagaland have all encouraged outsiders to try their hand at shaping outcomes in South Asia. Consider the situation in Sri Lanka. After crushing the Tamil Tiger movement last spring, the government stubbornly resisted the calls of human rights organizations and Western governments to come clean about its scorched-earth tactics. But others rushed in to provide support: China, Pakistan, Iran, and even Burma.

“While the support for Sri Lanka was largely driven by each country’s political and economic motives, some common factors were also clearly in play,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Anna Neistat in Legacy of Abuse in Sri Lanka. Such factors include “an effort to counterbalance India’s influence in the region (in the case of China and Pakistan), similar problems with separatist groups and abusive counterinsurgency campaigns, and an overall tendency to jointly oppose Western criticism and challenge Western domination in the international arena.”

The United States, too, wants to keep a hand in South Asia’s great game: supporting India’s nuclear program, going after al-Qaeda in Pakistan while trying to keep the government in Islamabad afloat, and attempting to build a nation out of a quagmire in Afghanistan. Keeping over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan hasn’t done much to suppress the Taliban. But U.S. military presence serves multiple purposes. It safeguards access to raw materials (for America but also for others, including the Chinese). Such a troop presence also reminds Russia and Iran of U.S. military power. And American soldiers are an insurance policy in case Pakistan spins out of control.

In our Strategic Dialogue: Afghanistan, FPIF contributor Ed Corcoran argues that we “have to support those who have supported us and disabuse the Taliban of any expectations that the United States will soon leave the country to them.” But FPIF research fellow Erik Leaver believes that it’s time to leave. “Providing effective aid that is Afghan-led can help change the perception of the United States as an occupying power,” he writes. “Couple that with a flexible timetable for withdrawal and Afghans might have a chance to build a country that will be safer both domestically and for the world at large.”

Afghan activist and legislator Malalai Joya is even more emphatic in rejecting not only the Taliban and the warlords, but the United States as well. “The United States has invested billions of dollars in nourishing Islamic fundamentalism in the region,” she tells FPIF contributor Julien Mercille in an exclusive interview. “The U.S. government knows that these warlords are ready to serve U.S. interests very well if money is poured into their pockets. Meanwhile, no democratic-minded and progressive group will betray Afghans by supporting the devastating U.S. policies in Afghanistan. The United States has found by experience that these warlords are the best group to support because they are head-to-toe lackeys who agree to every command of their foreign masters.”

From Sri Lanka to Afghanistan and everything in between, we’ll provide you with in-depth coverage of this volatile but crucially important region in our South Asia strategic focus. Over the next several weeks at FPIF, you’ll learn about the nuclear issue, India’s economy, the future of Pakistan, the new politics of Bollywood films, and much more. Which way will the region swing? You could listen to the Pentagon, the mainstream media, or the latest tape from al-Qaeda — or you could read the analysis in our South Asia focus.

Show Us the Jobs!

The banks have been stimulated. The Wall Street brokers have been stimulated. And, boy oh boy, has the Pentagon been stimulated. The question is: Has all this economic stimulation produced any jobs?

“We have billions of dollars going toward wars without a foreseeable end-point or concrete benefit, and thousands of U.S. citizens without jobs. Congress has long argued to keep military projects in their districts because they keep constituents employed. But is the military really the best way to create jobs?” ask FPIF outreach and production coordinator Jennifer Doak and FPIF research fellow Miriam Pemberton. In The Secret about Jobs Military Contractors Don’t Want You to Know, they introduce a new report, commissioned by FPIF, from economists at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst that shows the federal government could generate thousands more jobs, both directly and indirectly, by focusing spending on health care, education, or clean energy rather than on defense. On the international front, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has lately come under much criticism. He’s not charismatic enough. He’s ineffectual. He appeases dictators.

Not so, argues FPIF senior analyst Ian Williams. The secretary general has worked hard to raise the profile of climate change issues, bridge the Israel-Palestine divide, and talk tough to dictatorial governments like Burma. He has even taken on the United States. “With the Obama administration, Ban has the best chance of any of his recent predecessors of speaking truth to power and emerging unscathed,” Williams writes in Good Moon Rising. “Consider, for instance, his labeling the United States a ‘deadbeat’ over its dues arrears this March. The recent firing of Clinton/Holbrooke protégé Peter Galbraith from the Afghan mission, whether wise or not, at least indicates a willingness to stand up to the United States.”

Finally, FPIF contributor Duran Parsi reviews a new book on Iran, Guardians of the Revolution by Ray Takeyh. “The most interesting part of Takeyh’s book is his call for a strategy of engagement and regional integration,” Parsi writes. “Throughout the book, he portrays Iran as a new regional power; it is strong, has vast natural resources, is building a nuclear capacity, and has influence throughout the region. As a result, the U.S. policy of containment cannot succeed.”

FPIF, October 20, 2009

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