The United States Must Abandon the Failed “AfPak” Approach to South Asia
For two decades, the United States has applied a failed “AfPak” strategy to South Asia which prioritizes the conflict in Afghanistan at the expense of all other U.S. interests in the region. U.S.-Pakistan relations offer the clearest example of the shortcomings of the “AfPak” strategy and an opportunity to adopt a diplomacy-centred approach that better prioritizes U.S. interests. This approach will require Washington to simultaneously part with its short-sighted obsession with terrorism in Afghanistan, refocus attention on U.S. relations with Pakistan as independent from Afghanistan, while avoiding the pitfalls of zero-sum competition with China for influence in the region. Even a shift in the way the US refers to the region could help reframe our thinking along more productive lines.
The term “AfPak” was allegedly coined by President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. It is sometimes criticized for its failure to acknowledge Pakistan as the true spoiler of peace in Afghanistan and its oversimplification of power dynamics in South Asia. In 2011, the late Stephen Cohen who was a prominent U.S. expert on Pakistan called on Washington to develop a more holistic approach to Afghanistan and South Asia more broadly by acknowledging that, “India is a friend, but not an ally. Pakistan is an ally, but not a friend. Afghanistan is everyone's problem.” These are valid criticisms of an “AfPak” approach to Pakistan and greater South Asia but they stop short of acknowledging that the United States is held hostage by conflicts of choice to the detriment of U.S. interests, as well as the region’s security, development, and stability.
Afghanistan became the most obvious casualty of an “AfPak” approach that assumed the Taliban could be defeated and stability restored to Afghanistan but for Pakistan’s lack of cooperation which itself was empowered due to Washington’s refusal to improve relations with Iran. This ignored the way a haphazard U.S. strategy during the early years of the conflict in Afghanistan encouraged ethnic and tribal competition while U.S.-backed strongmen and U.S. operatives themselves fueled a coalescence of Afghan grievances to the benefit of the newly regrouped Taliban. COIN warfare led isolated victories against Taliban targets to be mistaken for wider gains and it became increasingly unclear what terrorist threat the United States was pursuing in the “AfPak” region. As Stephen Tankel recently pointed out, “almost 20 years after 9/11 the Pentagon still lacks a single list that includes all the terrorist groups it is combating.”
“AfPak” remained the preferred strategy throughout the Obama administration but lost some currency as an official term due to Pakistani objections. Pervez Musharraf, who led Pakistan from 1999 to 2008 following a military coup, criticized the term for equating Pakistan with a failed state. Indeed, “AfPak” binds the destiny of Pakistan, which is a nuclear-armed democracy--albeit tutelary in nature--of over 200 million people, with that of Afghanistan, which is a fragmented state of less than 40 million people with a government that lacks legitimacy and territorial control over much of the country. But portraying Pakistan as a country teetering on becoming a rogue state and tying its destiny to Afghanistan was precisely the point of “AfPak.” There were even calls to sever all aid and label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.
In 2011, Peter Tomsen who served as U.S. special envoy and ambassador to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992 warned that terrorist groups harbored by Pakistan would target U.S. cities first with conventional bombs, adding that, “[t]omorrow they [bombs] are likely to be biological, chemical or nuclear.” In 2017, the Hudson Institute’s Husain Haqqani and Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis offered a more balanced approach to Pakistan by advocating to closely link aid to counterterrorism cooperation and threaten to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorismn in the future if progress is not made. But the basic premise remains the same: relations with Pakistan must hinge on outcomes in Afghanistan.
Pakistani diplomats and generals often speak of a Pakistan-China relationship that is “higher than the Himalayas” and “sweeter than honey.” This is rooted in China’s development of Pakistan’s infrastructure and mutual suspicion of an ascendant India. Chinese-funded construction of Pakistan’s Karakoram highway began in 1959 and in early 2000, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf proposed the idea of China constructing a port at Gwadar to back-up Karachi’s naval base and deter Indian aggression or retaliation in a future conflict. Thus, Gwadar did not originate as a Chinese Trojan horse aimed at colonizing South Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but was instead a self-serving Pakistani proposal made in a pre-9/11 world that was met with skepticism from Beijing.
However, the ambition of BRI to connect Central and South Asian economies indicates that Beijing better understands the interconnectedness of these regions than Washington. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) portion of the project, often referred to as the BRI’s pilot project, is neither a case of win-win development nor near-sighted exploitation. As of February, China accounts for 37.5% of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Pakistan which also holds $23.6 billion in loan financing from China. The loans are exploitative, but what drives the relationship forward is the belief that China represents the future of economic growth and the U.S. model does not offer politically expedient short-term results.
It is precisely because Beijing departs from the flawed U.S. “AfPak” strategy and looks beyond security in South Asia towards trade and development that it is able to project influence. Developing countries fall into Beijing’s orbit for two reasons: (1) the perception that China offers results; and (2) the belief that China is the only show in town. Exposure matters and 92% of Pakistanis polled have a positive perception of Chinese companies. The U.S. should accept that economic development is not a zero-sum game and a more prosperous and connected South Asia will enhance Washington’s own security objectives regardless of whether it also enhances Beijing’s standing in the world.
But U.S. policymakers remain largely fixated on the idea that Chinese development projects in South Asia are merely a veneer to project power. Indeed, there are strong indications that China is building a base at Jawani just 60 km from Gwadar and Pakistan’s inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Council may lead to joint China-Pakistan counterterrorism operations. India also remains concerned over Chinese military spending, arms sales to Pakistan, and the possibility of a two-front war with China and Pakistan, but it should be remembered that China was relatively disengaged during Pakistan’s wars with India in 1965, 1971, and 1999.
U.S. policy in South Asia must depart from an obsession with Afghanistan and instead turn to a more complete and integrated view of the region. But this should not be conflated with viewing South Asia as a mere testing ground for great power competition. It will be a real tragedy if U.S. South Asia policy leaves behind its myopic focus on Afghanistan only to transition to an obsession with China’s role in the region. If the U.S. achieves a political settlement in Afghanistan that allays Pakistan’s concerns over Indian influence, then the relative sense of security that China presents Islamabad may create room for further U.S.-led engagement with India and a significantly safer South Asia. What is instead needed is a nuanced approach to South Asia that views the region as more than a hedge against a perceived threat--whether that threat be terrorism or near-peer competitors.