2014 Drawdown: What Does It Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy in South Asia?

With the date for U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan fast approaching, the main mission for the Obama administration and the international forces in Afghanistan is to assure that Afghan forces are ready and able for the transition. The complications of the transfer have already begun due to growing mistrust between U.S. military leaders and forces and their Afghan counterparts due to the problematic increase in attacks on U.S. forces by their Afghan training partners. As a result of the attacks, joint troop trainings between the U.S. and Afghanistan, an integral component to the transfer, were suspended for a period of time. Though eventually reinstated, the program has been altered slightly in order to protect American soldiers. Relations with the Afghani government have also soured, with the U.S. refusal to fully hand over the Bagram prison a recent source of troubles. The combination of the Taliban’s resurgence, a growing drug trade, and the high possibility of a civil war, has led many to question whether or not the administration and especially the military really intends to pull out of the country.  In the coming period before the official withdrawal, the U.S. is focusing its resources on not only the Afghan government, but its neighbors, India and Pakistan, as the roles they play in the region will be integral to maintaining stability. The next two years will be important, as the administration will have to deal with a multitude of issues that could put a successful transition at great risk.

Upcoming Elections: While the ability of Afghan security troops to take over without U.S. assistance is an ongoing concern, and many have discussed the troubling implications of Afghanistan’s current economic dependency on aid, The Economist sees the political transition in 2014 as the most concerning event for a successful 2014 transition. The article notes that the preliminary draft of the strategic partnership agreement (SPA), as well as, the meeting of military recruitment targets by the Afghan Security Forces provides some evidence that the military and economic situations, while concerning, are not dire. And while it remains important that the country continues to receive aid in order to create a smooth economic transition, the most worrying transition post-2014, according to a report from the International Crisis Group, will be the political elections in Afghanistan. The report outlines a pessimistic outlook on the situation and warns about the high potential for election fraud, rigging and post-election instability.

Possibility of Civil War and Security Capabilities: Economic aid for the region from the U.S., NATO and other nations has increased greatly in the years after 9/11; as much as ninety-seven percent of Afghan GDP is dependent on military and development aid. However, the fear by Afghans and other leading agencies, such as the World Bank, about dependency on aid and troops has left many concerned about what that dependency would mean for security within the country post drawdown. Partly due to low funds and partly due to the Afghan’s feelings of abandonment, many journalists see the collapse into civil war not as a “possibility” but as an imminent fact upon American troop withdrawal. Richard Engels of NBC news stated “…I spoke to some Tajik villagers outside Kabul, who promised me they would start fighting once American troops leave.” A senior figure in Hizb-i-Islami, Ghairat Baheer, told the Daily Telegraph, “…I don’t think the national army and national police will be able to resist. They don’t have the morale…It will lead to civil war.” Much of the concerns focus on the Afghan Army and its ability to shed its dependency on American forces and act independently once the American combat troops leave.

However, other experts, especially amongst U.S. officials, do not believe that civil war is imminent. Citing the international community’s commitment to Afghan stability, Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, has said that he considers the possibility of civil war or economic instability “unlikely scenarios.” Journalist Robert Dreyfuss has called these claims as “foolhardy” and declares that while civil war is certainly a possible outcome, successful peace talks and war-weary Afghan citizens make it less likely to occur. Javid Ahmad, Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund, points to Washington ambiguity as the source of these anxieties and urges the administration and others to “clarify its role beyond 2014 and clearly stipulate a set of scenarios it will adopt should the Afghan security and political transitions not go as well as planned.”

The Taliban: Central to questions about civil war is the role of Taliban forces in the region. Abandonment of Afghanistan has led many senior British military officials to worry that this will embolden the Taliban and allow them to take over once more.  Earlier this year, it seemed that inclusion of Taliban leaders in peace talks was not possible due to bipartisan congressional opposition to a negotiated a prisoner swap.  Those, such as national security reporter Spencer Ackerman, who believe that peace talks with the Taliban are essential to the 2014 withdrawal, saw this as a tragic mistake. Post-election, however, the administration seems willing to restart negotiations despite resistance from both the U.S. military and the opposition forces. Recent reports have Taliban representatives attending meetings with other Afghan players in Paris to discuss the future. Though just an initial meeting, the administration hopes that peace negotiations can be reinstated.

Involvement of India and Pakistan: Successful efforts in Afghanistan will also hinge on the participation of its neighbors, Pakistan and India. Issues between the United States and Pakistan have increased steadily over the past few years, culminating with the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan by American forces. However, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban has made it a key player in strategic talks over the future of Afghanistan. Slate columnist Fred Kaplan remarked that, “The only way to defeat the Taliban is to make it worth the Pakistanis’ while to help—to make them calculate that clamping down is both feasible and in their security interests.” Furthermore, the Telegraph reports that the Afghan High Peace Council views Pakistan as the natural successor to Washington to direct peace efforts. However, disappointment in Pakistan has led U.S. officials to look to India as the stabilizing force in Afghanistan. Shared concerns over Islamic extremists and stable governance has pivoted Washington’s attentions away from Pakistan towards India.  Relations between India and Afghanistan, supported by the U.S. and NATO, have strengthened with the two signing a strategic partnership agreement in 2011; this is in addition to increases in aid provided to Afghanistan by the Indian government

Obama’s Re-Election: Response from Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East

President Barack Obama was re-elected Tuesday, November 6, 2012, over Republican candidate Mitt Romney, winning the Electoral votes 332-206. With over 50% of the popular vote, President Obama was able to maintain, and in some cases better, his percentage of minority voters to not only gain a decisive victory over his opponent, but also demonstrated the impact of changing voter demographics in the United States. A critical component to President Obama’s victory was the growth of Asian-American voters, of whom more than 70% chose the incumbent over Mr. Romney.

Leading up to the election, many voters believed that President Obama’s handling of foreign policy over the last four years was a clear advantage to gain re-election. Under the Obama administration, diplomatic and military relations with Asia have received more attention, with administration officials seeking to create stronger ties with the region.

Leaders from around Asia offered congratulations to President Obama on his victory, with calls to promote and strengthen future relations. President Noynoy Aquino of the Philippines stated on his Twitter page, “The Philippines looks forward to deepening the cooperation between the Philippines and the United States in Mr. Obama’s second term.”

China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said, “[China will] look to the future and make continuous efforts for fresh and greater progress in the building of the China-US cooperative partnership.”

Leaders from Central Asia and the Caucasus’s reacted similarly, congratulating President Obama wholeheartedly, while stressing that he should maintain strong relations going into his second term. Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian responded by sending “warmest congratulations and best wishes” to the President, adding that “our multifaceted cooperation will yield new impressive results for the mutual benefit of our peoples.”

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev sent Mr. Obama a telegram stating, “I am confident that in such a difficult period, under your leadership, the United States will become a powerful force for stability and prosperity in the world. I wish you and your family health and happiness, and success in your work, as well as the prosperity to the American people.”

The reaction from countries in the Middle East was a bit more mixed. Tensions within the region have grown over the last four years with the increases in drone strikes and rapid changes in leadership with the Arab Spring. The United States’ continued presence in the region will also come under scrutiny as the military begins its 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan. Despite these concerns, many leaders offered their hopeful support to Mr. Obama upon his reelection.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose controversial statements during the election became the center of many debates between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, stated that “I will continue to work with President Obama to preserve the strategic interests of Israel’s citizens.”

A representative for Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai remarked, “The president hopes that with President Obama’s re-election, relations between Afghanistan and the United States, based on bilateral interests, are further expanded.”

Pakistan and Turkey perhaps had the most enthusiastic reactions. A representative of the Pakistani government spoke on behalf of the President, noting that he “… Expressed the hope that the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. would continue to prosper during President Obama’s new term in office.” While Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul stated, “I am delighted to confirm that we share the same vision as you in especially strengthening the economic and trade dimensions of our relations in the next term.”

Not all leaders had positive reactions to Mr. Obama’s re-election. Many stressed the need for different positions from the administration in the next four years. The Hamas Government expressed harsh sentiments: “We listened to the moderate speech by Obama in the wake of his first presidential victory, but his policy did not fit into this discourse and in front of him now is an opportunity to apply what he had promised of the region away from the pressures of the Israeli lobby.”

Mohammad Shtayyeh, aid to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, added, “President Obama has spent four years in the office; unfortunately he hasn’t done much for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Given the current climate in the region and recent events in Gaza, the administration is likely to remain preoccupied with the Middle East for some time. Harsh criticism regarding President Obama’s handling of the Israeli-Palestine conflict and escalating tensions between Israel and Iran will pose challenges in the next four years. With the anticipated resignation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, President Obama will have to make critical decisions about who will best be able to handle these situations going forward and adjust policies to address the new challenges and realities on the ground.


What are your thoughts about the Obama Administration’s relationship with Asia and the Middle East? Share your thoughts!

Be sure to subscribe to stay informed on the latest in foreign policy!