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What does US departure from Afghanistan mean for South Asia?

India and Pakistan must come to terms with the changing dynamics in greater Middle East.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: May 11, 2021 8:39:14 am
Delhi and Rawalpindi, for very different reasons, would have liked to see the US forces stay forever in Afghanistan. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

As the last American troops begin to leave Afghanistan and the US turns away from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, there is a scramble to redo the foreign policy maths in the region. Since it replaced Britain as the major external power in Greater Middle East half a century ago, America has been the pivot around which the regional politics has played out.

The old colonial powers of Europe deferred to American leadership in the region. Russia and China, in contrast, sought to chip away at US dominance. Many regional actors sought alliances with America to secure themselves against ambitious or troublesome neighbours. Others sought to balance against America. But as Washington recasts its role in the region, new realignments have become inevitable.

India and Pakistan, like most other regional actors and powers, long assumed that the American role in the greater Middle East was unchanging. Both Delhi and Rawalpindi must now imagine a Middle East that is not micromanaged by the US.

Israel’s security, ensuring oil supplies, competing with other powers, making regional peace, promoting democracy, and stamping out terrorism are no longer compelling factors demanding massive American military, political and diplomatic investments in the region. After the costly and prolonged military interventions in the Middle East, Washington has begun to see that it can’t fix centuries-old conflicts in the region. Even more important, the US now has other urgent priorities such as the challenge from an assertive China.

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As America steps back from the Middle East, most regional actors either need alternate patrons or reduced tensions with their neighbours. Although China and Russia have regional ambitions, neither of them bring the kind of strategic heft America brought to bear on the Middle East all these decades. Learning to live with neighbours has then become an urgent priority.

Turkey has figured that its troubled economy can’t sustain the ambitious regional policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After years of challenging Saudi leadership of the Islamic world, Erdogan is offering an olive branch to Riyadh. He is also trying to make nice with Egypt after years of trying to destabilise Cairo by support to the Muslim Brotherhood.

After years of intense mutual hostility, Saudi Arabia and Iran are now exploring means to reduce bilateral tensions and moderate their proxy wars in the region. Saudi Arabia is also trying to heal the rift within the Gulf by ending the earlier effort to isolate Qatar. These changes come in the wake of the big moves last year by some Arab states — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — to normalise ties with Israel.

India’s emphasis on good relations with all the regional actors without a reference to their conflicts has been vindicated by the turn of events. Barring Turkey, which turned hostile to India under Erdogan, Delhi has managed to expand its ties with most regional actors. Hopefully, the new regional churn will encourage Turkey to take a fresh look at its relations with India.

If Delhi has been pragmatic, Pakistan has struggled to recalibrate its policies towards the Middle East. It is unable to overcome the domestic ideological opposition to establishing diplomatic ties with Israel despite the recognition that a normal relationship with the Jewish state serves Pakistan’s interests. Pakistan also fell between the stools in coping with regional rivalries in the Middle East.

When he came to power nearly three years ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan unveiled ostentatious plans to construct a new Islamic bloc with Turkey and Malaysia. His foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi publicly berated the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for not rallying against India’s constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Saudis and Emiratis were quick to remind of Pakistan’s deep economic dependence on its Arab Gulf friends by calling in their loans to Islamabad. Abu Dhabi also turned the squeeze on Pakistan’s labour exports to the UAE. Since then, the Pak army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has worked assiduously to mend Pakistan’s ties with the Gulf nations.

Bajwa’s effort culminated in Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week. If religious ideologues in Pakistan had expected a thundering Saudi condemnation of India’s Kashmir policy, they would have been deeply disappointed. The Saudi-Pak joint statement simply supported a dialogue between India and Pakistan on all issues, including Kashmir.

Pakistan’s about-turn on Saudi Arabia underlines that the Subcontinent does not have the luxury of relying on old ideological tropes like pan-Islamism, pan-Arabism, or anti-Americanism in a region that is undergoing major transformations. Nationalism, economic interest, and regime security have trumped transcendental ideologies.

Whether by design or not, the regional reset in the Middle East has coincided with efforts by Delhi and Rawalpindi to cool their tensions. The ceasefire on the Line of Control in Kashmir announced at the end of February appears to be holding. Pakistan’s military establishment is in the middle of a vigorous debate on how to link or delink the question of India’s 2019 constitutional changes in Kashmir from the normalisation of bilateral relations. It is not clear how this debate will conclude and its impact on the India-Pak dialogue.

Meanwhile, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan poses major challenges to the Subcontinent. Delhi and Rawalpindi, for very different reasons, would have liked to see the US forces stay forever in Afghanistan. For Delhi, American military presence would have kept a check on extremist forces and created conducive conditions for an Indian role in Afghanistan. For Rawalpindi, American military presence in Afghanistan keeps the US utterly dependent on Pakistan for geographic access and operational support. And that dependence in turn could be mobilised against India.

But America is leaving Afghanistan. India and Pakistan will have to live with the consequences that include the triumphal return of the Taliban to power in Kabul and a boost to violent religious extremism across the region. The prospect of trans-border links between the Taliban and other extremist forces in the region is a challenge that South Asian states will have to confront sooner than later. Soaring levels of violence in Afghanistan and last week’s attack on Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of Maldives, underlines South Asia’s enduring challenges with terrorism. Unless the South Asian states collaborate on countering extremism and terrorism, every one of them will be weakened.

Finally, the current turmoil in the Greater Middle East underlines the dangers of the Subcontinent forgetting that raison d’etat — or nationalist interest of the state — must prevail over all other considerations, including religious ones. In Pakistan, the religious forces empowered over the last many decades have tied Pakistan’s foreign policy towards the Middle East, South Asia and Europe into knots. A state that cedes power to extremism of any kind courts the danger of being consumed by it.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 11, 2021 under the title ‘The Middle East reset’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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