After the Cold War: South Asian Security

By Snyder, Jed C. | Strategic Forum, August 15, 1995 | Go to article overview

After the Cold War: South Asian Security

Snyder, Jed C., Strategic Forum

The U.S. Approach to the Indian Sub-Continent

Asymmetries dominate South Asia, explaining much of the region's tension, and complicating the U.S. approach to its major powers, India and Pakistan. Disparities in geographic size, population, military capability, and economic markets leave the Pakistanis feeling inferior to India and reinforce India's view of itself as an emerging major power.

For much of the last five decades, South Asia was of episodic strategic interest to the United States. The region's strategic value was measured almost solely in terms of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union and varied with the mercurial cycles of U.S.-Soviet geopolitical competition. Even at the height of the region's relevance for U.S. global policy, in the 1950s and again in the 1980s, the link between Washington and South Asia was never comfortable.

The region's two key powers, India and Pakistan, were on opposite sides of the Cold War struggle. In the 1970s and 1980s, India was among the most important of the Soviet Union's Third World allies, while Pakistan's security orientation was consistently pro-Western. This presented an awkward problem for the United States. The world's largest democracy and non-sectarian nation (therefore a seemingly natural ally), India, led the "non-aligned" movement and became alienated from the United States, while Pakistan, a nation with little natural political affinity with America, saw its strategic connection improve even as its government became increasingly autocratic and Islamic under General Zia ul Haq.

The importance of Afghanistan as a factor in Pakistan's strategic prominence for U.S. policy makers throughout the 1980s cannot be overstated. The Soviet invasion in 1979 marked a turning point in U.S. strategic policy for Southwest Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Not since the days of John Foster Dulles' "Northern Tier" strategy was Pakistan so prominent as a U.S. regional surrogate with a disproportionately large share of U.S. security assistance. During this critical period, Islamabad's leaders were left with the impression that Pakistan's covert nuclear weapons program would not be a serious impediment to close relations with the United States. All of this reassured them vis-a-vis India. With the collapse of the Soviet position in Afghanistan and Moscow's eventual withdrawal, Pakistan's preferential treatment ended.

Legislative prohibitions on U.S. assistance (brought about through the Pressler amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act) triggered by U.S. concerns over Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, essentially halted economic and military aid after 1990. Pakistan regarded this as a betrayal.

Pakistan's perception that the U.S. had abandoned it was particularly powerful in light of Afghanistan. Pakistan's willingness to allow its territory to be used as a conduit for U.S. weapons to the Mujahidin not only created the perception of a lasting closeness with the United States, it also exacted large long-term social, economic, and political costs, including refugee waves, Islamic extremism, terrorism and narcotics production on a large scale. U.S. support for Pakistan has ceased as these problems have become worse, compounding the country's ability to cope with them.

The New Context of South Asian Security

South Asia is the only region where three nuclear competing powers share frontiers and a recent history of four wars. Their rivalries have fueled conventional and unconventional arms races, unrestrained by arms control regimes. Moreover, the USSR, China, and the United States have involved India and Pakistan in their own rivalries, as well as having been brought into the Indo-Pakistani disputes. Moscow was New Delhi's constant patron; Beijing assisted Islamabad and the U.S. position fluctuated. Finally, the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world, increasing domestic discontent, and politically weak governments exacerbate a tendency of India and Pakistan to incite separatist movements on each other's territory Indian meddling in Sindh and Pakistani involvement in Punjab and in Kashmir. …

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