The latest U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) categorically highlight China’s assertive behavior in the Indo-Pacific and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as threats to the U.S.-led liberal international order. South Asia in terms of regional priorities for the U.S. is largely subsumed under the Indo-Pacific strategy and is likely to remain so considering evolving geopolitics.
More than anything else, the long war in Afghanistan shaped the United States’ South Asia strategy for the last two decades. Therefore, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021 has regenerated the debate on what South Asia, and more particularly India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, fit into U.S. national security and defense strategies.
U.S. engagement in Afghanistan stands reduced to “over the horizon” counterterrorism capabilities and highly contingent upon the nature of its relationship with the Taliban. The Pakistan-U.S. relationship is highly circumscribed, and the India-U.S. partnership has assumed a broader strategic arc in the Indo-Pacific era.
South Asia in Biden’s NSS and NDS
Although both the NSS and NDS make no mention of South Asia as a region of strategic priority, the U.S. policy toward South Asia can be discerned via two lenses. First, through the India-U.S. partnership, which has been deemed vital for counterbalancing Beijing’s presence in the Indian Ocean Region. And second, in the focus on ensuring the security of the U.S. homeland, with no future attacks emanating from Afghanistan. Following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. dynamics with Pakistan seem highly transactional, depending on what Pakistan can offer for U.S. counterterrorism goals in the region, and what the U.S. can offer Islamabad in terms of military and non-military assistance.
The Biden administration’s policy toward India broadly revolves around how Washington would position New Delhi in its strategic framing of the Indo-Pacific. With the NSS focusing on partnerships with democracies and like-minded countries as well as the NDS focusing on empowering the capabilities of allies and partners, the trajectory of the India-U.S. partnership could converge on multiple avenues for maintaining a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Continuing dissonance between New Delhi and Beijing over the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC), because of Chinese aggression along the disputed border, has given more strategic rationale to the growing New Delhi-Washington embrace.
Since January 2021, the Biden administration focused on the looming withdrawal from Afghanistan and establishing “over the horizon” counterterrorism capabilities as the primary objective in South Asia. The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, in July 2022, was an exemplar of U.S. capability and presence in Afghanistan despite the withdrawal of its forces.
With the persistence of Islamic fundamentalism and violent extremist organizations in its threat perception, the NSS and NDS still suggest that the U.S. must maintain “over the horizon” capabilities, given the Taliban’s wavering on its commitment to prevent the utilization of Afghan soil for terrorism. Given the withdrawal from Afghanistan and emerging threats in Europe and Indo-Pacific, it remains uncertain how the Biden administration respond to the consolidation of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) and other Islamic groups in Afghanistan after the killing of al-Zawahiri.
The return of the Taliban to power has triggered a hiatus of sorts in the Pakistan-U.S. relationship. The streamlining of anti-Americanism during the tenure of Prime Minister Imran Khan led to disdain in Washington for Islamabad. However, despite the current lack of positivity in the relationship, the possibility of a recovery phase between both countries cannot be ruled out. In September 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented: “This is one of the things we’re going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead — the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that.”
Although Pakistan was not mentioned precisely in the NSS and NDS, the threat perception from violent extremist organizations still provides flexibility to the Biden administration to reconfigure its policy with Islamabad. Rising ISKP attacks and the strained relationship between the current Sharif government and the Taliban regime in Kabul compels Pakistan to seek aid and assistance from major powers, including China but also the United States.
Does Washington Still Have a South Asia Policy?
The categorization of South Asia within U.S. strategic calculus has evolved from being a theater of priority in the early 21st century to gradually being subsumed into perceptions of the wider Indo-Pacific. The primacy of the China challenge in U.S. strategy, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the declining value of Pakistan in U.S. interests, and the upswing in India-U.S. strategic partnership in the larger Indo-Pacific, has pushed South Asia lower in U.S. priorities for the short term at least.
Washington’s priorities in South Asia for almost two decades were largely shaped by the war in Afghanistan, although the partnership with New Delhi simultaneously took shape in lieu of the evolving geopolitics in Asia-Pacific and later the Indo-Pacific. In the age of the Indo-Pacific, when all major stakeholders of the international system and different regions are jumping onto the bandwagon and tailoring their own national strategies toward this mega region, smaller regional theaters like South Asia, while being inherently relevant to U.S. strategy, are bound to be relegated to the sidelines of U.S. policy attention.
The changing geopolitical landscape requires the U.S. to re-evaluate its South Asia policy and how it positions the region within its strategic calculus. Mired in complexities, the Biden administration could frame its policy toward South Asia based on creating a more robust partnership with India to secure interests in the Indian Ocean Region and have minimal collaboration with Pakistan to develop a policy toward Central Asia and Afghanistan. The reality remains that Washington requires New Delhi to counterbalance China, but the relationship is beset with divergences. The Biden administration would surely like Pakistan to coax the Taliban, but the relationship lacks positivity as of now.
In the final analysis, Washington will continue to respond to the clear and present dangers of terrorism from the region, but a strategy toward South Asia will primarily be guided by U.S. threat perceptions from an assertive China in the larger Indo-Pacific.