Washington’s Foreign Policy Has Moved On From Kabul and Islamabad

Washington’s Foreign Policy Has Moved On From Kabul and Islamabad
The withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 was a clear indication that South Asia’s strategic value was dwindling in Washington’s foreign policy calculus. The US has never seen South Asia, where Pakistan and Afghanistan are located, as having critical strategic importance. American grand strategy has always remained focused on regions that form the industrial cores of the world.

During the Cold War, Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s importance was a function of our geographical proximity to Soviet Central Asia. The Americans could use Pakistani territory as a base to bomb and eavesdrop on the Soviet Union’s military installations and industrial capacity. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made Pakistan a key American ally, as the Pakistan military and intelligence helped to funnel American arms, funding and training to the mujahideen.

When the Cold War ended, the same mujahideen emerged as a prime threat to American interests in the form of Islamic militancy and terror groups, as perceived by American military and strategic experts. Afghanistan was the hub of these terror groups, which fled towards Pakistani territory after the US invaded Afghanistan.

To mount a successful invasion, the US military and security establishment needed the assistance of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment, and they also needed our territory as a base in the fight inside Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan acquired a new found significance in US strategic calculations.

This significance however, suddenly diminished in August 2021 when the last American soldiers left Afghanistan. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan meant that this was the first time in more than four decades that the US would not have any kind of military presence or interests in the region, starting from the shores of the Indian Ocean up to the steppes of Central Asia.

Pakistan reportedly denied territory for bases to the US military in the wake of their withdrawal from Afghanistan. China and Russia are opposed tooth and nail to the reestablishment of American military bases in Central Asia.

The Trump Administration, which initiated talks with the Afghan Taliban with the ultimate objective of withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan also issued two national security documents - the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy - in which China and Russia were identified as strategic rivals and sources of military competition.

Prior to 2016, the Obama Administration had already made known its change of foreign policy paradigm with the new phrase, "Pivot to Asia;" the American military and diplomatic pivot, or rebalance towards Asia became a popular buzzword after Hillary Clinton authored "America's Pacific Century," in Foreign Policy magazine in year 2011.

Ultimately then, the focus of American foreign policy started to gradually shift away from South Asia - a region which had assumed exponential strategic importance in American grand strategy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The result had been a strong American military and intelligence presence in the region.

Historically, American grand strategy has always been focused on averting the emergence of any land power which is powerful enough to dominate the industrial cores of the Eurasian landmass - which in the interwar years and post-World War 2 periods included the Western Europe industrial nations and Japan. The regions which now form the industrial cores of the world include Western Europe and mostly Eastern Asia including China.

This grand strategy compelled Americans to use their military might in the protection of Western Europe and Japan during the Cold War. The domination of any of these industrial core regions during the Cold War could have disturbed the balance of world power and could have posed a security threat to mainland American territory. This led to formulation of the Americans’ containment strategy against Soviet communism and the Warsaw Pact countries.

US military and strategic experts now believe that China is the new industrial core of the world, and along with Russia, occupies a position to dominate the Eurasian landmass. Hence, old geopolitical thinking is undergoing a revival in Washington, where any military-industrial power which is in a position to dominate the Eurasian landmass could pose a military and security threat for the American mainland.

Strictly speaking in military terms, this should have raised the strategic importance of Pakistan, as the country closest to China. It did not however - on account of Pakistan’s close strategic and military relations with China, its importance for Washington remains close to nil. Instead, Washington’s strategists started to eye India as a counterweight to China after 2006; it was the year after which successive US administrations started laying the groundwork for stronger ties.

India, however, has a very strong tradition of running an independent foreign policy, which they used to call the policy of Non-Alignment during the Cold War, and which they now refer to as Strategic Autonomy. An example of this is that despite persistent American cajoling, New Delhi has refused to condemn Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, the overly pro-America positions assumed by New Delhi in the last decade are mainly a product of the Hindutva lobby.

Will India’s 'more independent' foreign policy stage a comeback under a more secular government in New Delhi in future? Only time will tell.

What are the options for Pakistan? Since the beginning of this year, former COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa made some attempts to warm up the Pakistan-US relations by cozying up with top US diplomats and by describing Washington as a strategic partner in his public assertions. The initiative, however, cannot change the reality that Pakistan and Afghanistan have lost much of their strategic value for Washington.

Securing America's mainland from terror attacks is still important for Washington, but American military planners have learned the hard way that deploying their military to a barren land, which has hardly any military or industrial targets, is not a very good strategy to deal with ragtag militias and terror groups.

In the months immediately preceding the withdrawal from Afghanistan, senior American officials were keen to point out that the groups based in Afghanistan do not possess any capability to strike mainland America.

Most importantly, American grand strategy is now more focused on issues related to the contest over global supremacy with China, and both Islamic militancy and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region are peripheral to this contest.

Growing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan society – instigated by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s political campaign - did not even cause a momentary blip on American radar screens.

Our ruling elites have been too dependent on American generosity for the past 70 years. During the Cold War, our military buildup plans, our industrialization and development goals all remained heavily dependent on American largesse. The War on Terror once again addicted our military and security establishment to American dollars.

This American generosity has historically proven to be the only lifeline of our ruling elite in the face of perennially poor management of the country’s economy through internecine political conflict, and the successive economic downturns they cause. The intra-elite conflict that has ailed our society since 2014 may simply be a reflection of the ruling elite’s unease over the lack of resources from the United States.

It must be remembered, however, that this state of affairs is our new reality, as American grand strategy pivots to focus on its geopolitical competition with China.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.