South Asia's Dilemma: US Absence Makes Your Skin Cold

South Asia's Dilemma: US Absence Makes Your Skin Cold

Since the early 1990s, American diplomacy in South Asia has largely remained focused on managing the tense relations between two regional nuclear rivals, India and Pakistan. In the year 1990, Americans managed the military tensions between the two countries—which according to most accounts had nuclear dimensions—over uprising in Kashmir which started on the heels of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Then military crises came one after the other—there was crisis during tit for tat nuclear testing by both countries, there was Kargil conflict, which also had a nuclear dimensions, according to most accounts. Then there were twin-peak crisis in 2002, after the attack on Indian parliament, 2008 crisis in political relations after Mumbai attacks. Then we had the latest military crisis during which Indian Air Force carried out a raid across Line of Control (LoC). Americans remained engaged in South Asia during this period, which, in the words of many international nuclear experts, has been described as a 'prolonged Cuban Missile Crisis’, instead of a stable nuclear deterrence relations between Soviet Unions and United States during the Cold War.

In many of these crises, conflict was narrowly averted. And to give the devil its due, American diplomacy played no small role in defusing the military crises between South Asian nuclear rivals. Every time there was a military mobilisation in South Asia, the US diplomats came running to this region in order to convince the decision-makers in Islamabad and New Delhi not to escalate any further. In fact, the US diplomacy deeply influenced the military and political strategy on both sides of the international border. As far as Pakistan is concerned, its strategy, during these military crises, remained focused on gaining time by prolonging the initial phase of the military standoff and thus allowing the US and other western countries to launch a diplomatic initiative to defuse the tensions.


In many of these crises, conflict was narrowly averted. And to give the devil its due, American diplomacy played no small role in defusing the military crises between South Asian nuclear rivals.


On the other hand, what Indians learned from American crisis management diplomacy was more concrete in military terms: They (Indians) devised the Cold Start military strategy to deal with American diplomacy, which didn’t allow them to take military action against Pakistan in December 2002, when, to their embarrassment, their strike corps took three weeks to mobilise and reach Pakistani borders for any effective military operation. Cold Start doctrine, which was a response to Americans intervention, is aimed at reducing the time period of mobilisation of Indian strike formations.

US experts now maintain that the American capacity to influence the military developments in South Asia has dwindled. This analysis of US dwindling capacity came to light much before the Kabul debacle that witnessed Taliban militia coming back into power. Apparently Washington's standing in the region has received a severe jolt after the Taliban just walked into the corridors of power in Kabul and other cities of Afghanistan.

There is no US military presence anywhere in Central Asia at present. The US had established temporary bases in Uzbekistan in 2001, which it closed in 2005, and Kyrgyzstan, which it closed in 2014. Now both Russia and China are deadly opposed to the US securing military bases anywhere in Central Asia. Pakistan has already closed down all US military bases on its territory and if Pakistan media reports are to be believed, it has rejected a US request for a new basis on Pakistani land in the wake of US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It is not my point that the US military power project in this region has got anything to do with its crisis management diplomacy in South Asia. No, But American planners must have anticipated this situation where they would not have any military presence  in the region starting from tip of Indian ocean on Indian shores, going all the way from plains of Pakistani Punjab till the mountainous regions of Central Asia, when they would have decided that they would be withdrawing from Afghanistan. This seemed like a deliberate and consecutive acts of disengagement. And this is in complete contrast with the past.

American diplomacy during the twin-peak crisis in 2002 largely stemmed from its large-scale military presence in the region. American bases in Central Asia and American land forces in Afghanistan would have felt the heat of Indian-Pakistan active conflict in 2002, when both the armies mobilised hundreds of thousands troops and brought them close to the international border.  In 1990, when Indian armored divisions advanced towards the Pakistani border over a crisis in Kashmir, Americans were actively engaged in supporting an Anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan.

The present is a totally changed situation in the region as far as American diplomacy and military presence in the region are concerned—there is no American military presence, there is nothing related to this region that is actively on the political agenda of American diplomacy for South Asia. Americans have long said good bye to nuclear non proliferation diplomacy, they have just abandoned Afghanistan, which in affect means they are not concerned about terrorism, extremism and militancy emanating from that country. Only recently US officials are on record saying that Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has no capacity to carry out terror attacks against mainland America.

Now the question is: Who will manage future military crises or tensions between South Asian Nuclear rivals? Is America no more in the business of defusing the military crisis between India and Pakistan? After the Uri attack, the US didn’t play an active role in defusing the crisis during the Trump tenure. This was the time when Washington was negotiating with the Taliban for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

If Americans are out, who will defuse any future military crisis in the region? After all there is every chance that Pakistan and India will find another reason for a military standoff. The very thought that there would be no one to separate the two rivals, especially when most of the nuclear and military experts agree that what the two countries have in terms of nuclear relations could be dubbed as 'dangerous deterrence'—is enough to make your skin cold.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.