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South Asia

This book chapter is published in America’s Role in Asia (The Asia Foundation, 2004) and is reproduced by permission of The Asia Foundation.

At the time of the Foundation’s 2000 Task Force Report, America’s Role in Asia, South Asia seemed to have achieved a degree of equilibrium. There had been earlier rumblings, some of which affected American policy. These included the 1989 Kashmir uprising, the subsequent India-Pakistan crisis of 1990, and the nuclear tests of May 1998. The other states of the region were no more, but no less, stressed than they had been for the previous four years. In Afghanistan, the Taliban was in control of most of the country, and the insurgency in Sri Lanka continued, despite the best efforts of the Norwegian government to sustain a peace process between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Bangladesh had achieved a degree of stability and appeared to be finally settling down with a successful election in 2001.

From an American perspective the region was thus a matter of concern, but not yet one of alarm, with the major public focus on the new “discovery” of India, the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs, and the stability of the new military regime in Pakistan— issues examined at length by the 2000 Task Force. The problem of combating al Qaeda was not widely discussed publicly, but by the end of the Clinton administration radical Islamic terrorism had supplanted anti-proliferation as the top U.S. concern in South Asia. More positively, first the Clinton team and then the new Bush administration saw India’s economic progress and strategic weight as new factors in shaping America’s global and regional policies, and both administrations cultivated affluent South Asian-American diaspora, especially the Indian-American community.

Then, the thunderbolt of September 11th hit, transforming American perceptions of the region and energizing American engagement in South Asia in ways totally unanticipated by the new Bush administration or anyone else. Within four years, there was a major American military intervention in Afghanistan, the revival of an alliance with Pakistan, this time directed against “terrorism,” not a communist power, and the declaration of a “natural” alliance between the United States and India—featuring numerous and highly publicized military exercises between the armed forces of the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies. These exercises were all the more astonishing since some of them were conducted simultaneously with the biggest military mobilization in South Asian history, as India engaged in an extended attempt to compel Pakistan to cease its support for terrorists operating in Kashmir and India. Indeed, some suspect that the presence of American troops on both sides of the India-Pakistan border (U.S. air and ground forces fighting in Afghanistan were operating from at least two military bases located in Pakistan) deterred India from attacking Pakistan—although Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal was probably deterrent enough.

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