Exiting from Afghanistan and Moving to the Indo-Pacific: India and Pakistan in US Foreign Policy

Sweta Kumari
May 12, 2019
Image Courtesy: Economic Times


As commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world, I spend a lot of time brooding over these issues. And I’m not satisfied we’ve got it perfect yet.

The above words were spoken by President Barack Obama at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016 concerning the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the United States got heavily invested in this region both diplomatically and militarily. President Obama during his tenure realized the development of new events at the global level and initiated two significant changes in the foreign policy of the United States. Firstly, the need was felt to stabilize war-torn Afghanistan, to train and assist the Afghan forces and to bring the American troops back home as soon as possible. Secondly, it became imperative to recognize the emergence of Asia Pacific as the most dynamic region in the world both economically and strategically.  This led to the formulation of the next great strategy of the foreign policy called “Pivot to Asia” which was later rephrased as the “Asia Rebalancing.”

While stepping into the future, it was required for the United States to gradually withdraw from some of its past engagements. In terms of developing relationships in the Asia Pacific, the Obama administration was quite successful. It strengthened relations with allies like Japan and South Korea, and also in making new strategic partnerships with countries, such as Vietnam and India. While the situation in Afghanistan remained turbulent and the US suffered casualties, it made several attempts in vain to place a strong democratic government in Kabul. The Taliban continued to impact the country.

For its Afghanistan policy, Pakistan is very crucial for the United States. It is an important gateway for the American troops to enter or exit landlocked Afghanistan. Given the history of US- Iran relations, the route through Iran cannot even be considered as an option. Apart from this, the northern border areas of Pakistan has been a safe haven for a segment of the Taliban forces. Today, under President Donald Trump’s administration, an attempt is being made for maintaining a ‘fragile peace’ in Afghanistan and bring the US troops back home. Pakistan’s known close relations with the Taliban makes it a crucial party in the US peace negotiations with the Taliban.

On the other hand, India has emerged as a potential strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific for the US. India has a vital role to play to balance the ‘new’ China, which is not just economically but also militarily expanding its influence in the region.  Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the East China Sea is already a significant point of concern for the US. The People’s Liberation Army’s  Naval wing is making forays into the Indian Ocean which have created worries for both India and the US.

The recent escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan following the Pulwama attacks has put the US in a difficult situation as Pakistan tries to manipulate peace negotiations in Afghanistan. Recently, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi expressed her country’s “obligation”  to shift its focus on its Eastern borders towards India which may make affect their efforts in the Western borders alongside Afghanistan, if the situation with India got worsened. Although these statements from Pakistan have been considered as an exaggeration by the US, they do concern the policymakers in Washington.

There has been a continuous effort by the US to ease the tension between the two crucial states. At the same time, the Trump administration has been very vocal about its dissatisfaction with Pakistan, concerning the latter’s efforts to put an end to the terrorist activities taking place in its mainland.  The US also refrained from giving any adverse remarks against India after the air strikes conducted by its forces in Balakot. All these turns of events suggest that the US in its foreign policy is now favoring India over Pakistan. The growing China-Pakistan bonhomie further adds to this case.  Despite all these advancements, one crucial factor that can overshadow everything is that both American and NATO troops rely on Pakistan’s cooperation for withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan.

The safety of American lives has always been the utmost priority in American foreign policy. Thus, the de-escalation of tension between India and Pakistan seems to be the best option for the Trump administration to transit from one region that kept it occupied for the past two decades towards a region which happens to be crucial for America in future.

*** The author is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***