Obama’s much-maligned Afpak policy scored the big one this weekend killing Osama bin Laden but it is still poorly organized for the challenges ahead. As the White House reorganizes the national security team, it should also reorganize the bureaucracy for dealing with South Asia. The U.S. government has consistently failed to see South Asia for what it is: a region with a shared environment, a shared cultural system, and its own strategic logic. Ignoring it or parceling it out conceptually and organizationally might have been an adequate response in the Cold War era, but its rise in importance demands a rethink of both American strategy and how the U.S. government is organized to deal with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This region, including the Indian Ocean, is too important now to be left to segmented and uncoordinated policy-making. To correct this, and to take advantage of new opportunities in South Asia, the U.S. must revise the obsolete civilian and military framework with which it approaches the region.
For the first time since the British departed South Asia, leaving behind two quarreling powers, the region has acquired the military and economic heft that it had during most of the Raj. The old Indian army not only made and kept the peace in the Middle East and South East Asia, it was a vital ally in two world wars. India was always one of the world’s largest economies, but it had stagnated under the British, who subordinated it to their own business interests. Now, India and Pakistan are both nuclear weapons states with powerful armies, and India is an economic success story rivaling China in terms of rates of growth. Nevertheless, America approaches the region much as it did during the extended Cold War: viewing it as a sideshow to Middle Eastern or East Asian matters.
South Asia is not merely a geographical name-place, it is a region tied together by climate, environment, strategy, social structure and military engagement.