Al-Qaeda’s attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, precipitated an unprecedented level of US involvement in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. With Afghanistan beset by a resurgent Taliban, and Pakistan increasingly unstable, the United States subsequently doubled down in this troubled region even as the Asia-Pacific became the locus of global economic growth and great-power military competition. Although US troops will remain in Afghanistan for years to come, bin Laden’s death heralds the beginning of the end of the United States’ ‘Af-Pak’ fixation. Increasingly, the United States will look eastward; Europe should as well.
Many forget that, pre-September 11, the US strategic focus was gravitating toward Asia. Coming into office, President George W. Bush was determined to rethink how the United States managed China’s rise, a development that posed a long-term challenge to US economic and military primacy. This determination was reinforced when a Chinese fighter jet rammed a US spy plane in April 2001, resulting in a short-lived crisis. However, the terrorist attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda redirected the Bush administration toward Afghanistan and the larger Muslim world. Although the United States remained active in the Asia-Pacific throughout President Bush’s tenure, the primary focus of US strategy lay elsewhere.
Like his predecessor, President Barack Obama entered the White House intending to prioritize the Asia-Pacific. Again, events intervened. To prevent the Taliban from solidifying control over large parts of Afghanistan, Obama authorized a surge of US troops there and ratcheted up armed drone attacks against terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. Yet his commitment to reorienting the United States toward Asia appears to have never wavered. Prior to bin Laden’s death, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told The New Yorker that the United States was ‘overweighted’ in the Middle East and Afghanistan and ‘underweighted’ in the Asia-Pacific.
The death of bin Laden in a shootout with US special forces doesn’t presage an imminent pullout from Afghanistan or a rapid drawdown in US assistance to Pakistan. The United States has committed itself to a ‘responsible transition’ in Afghanistan and will retain a considerable military presence there in the years ahead. Terrorist networks that have metastasized within Pakistan over the past decade and now threaten the integrity of the state will not disband because of bin Laden’s demise. Even if elements of the Pakistani government were complicit in hiding the leader of al-Qaeda, the United States can’t risk lightly the collapse of a nuclear-armed state by cutting off foreign aid.
At the same time, the completion of the United States’ original mission in Afghanistan that bin Laden’s death symbolizes will allow for a strategy that increasingly reflects the Asia-Pacific geography of US interests. This shift won’t occur overnight. For the moment, the revolutions rocking the Arab world will absorb US attention. Nor will this shift automatically substitute China for al-Qaeda as the United States’ animating enemy, a development some in China may fear. In fact, the outlines of a US reorientation toward Asia are already clear. The United States will strengthen existing alliances and strategic partnerships, forge new ones, and link likeminded nations together.
To reinforce its military presence in the region, the United States will retain permanent bases, negotiate agreements for temporary access to facilities, and deploy more of its naval and air forces to the Indo-Pacific rim stretching from Japan and South Korea to Southeast Asia and the approaches to India. At the same time, the United States will pursue a reinvigorated trade agenda anchored by the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks that seek to lay the foundation for a free trade area spanning the Pacific Ocean. Lastly, Washington will continue to champion democracy and the rule of law as universal norms that all countries in the region should embrace.
US rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific will have significant repercussions for Europe. Over the past decade, Afghanistan has become a central theatre for transatlantic security cooperation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will continue to operate in Afghanistan, but, in the future, the United States will increasingly look to Europe as a partner in Asia. Yet transatlantic cooperation in this region remains weak, and many in Europe continue to regard Asia primarily as a market rather than as the cockpit of international politics in the 21st century. This should change. Europe should anticipate the United States’ eastward shift and begin to define a role in the Asia-Pacific that transcends trade.
During the second half of the 20th century, the United States and Europe, acting in concert, transformed what was then the world’s most important region—the North Atlantic. If Europe can join the United States and refocus on the Asia-Pacific, the transatlantic partners can shape this century’s most vital region as well.
Daniel M. Kliman is a Transatlantic Fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the United States. This article was first published on GMF’s blog as a Transatlantic Take.