The visit of the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to the White House this week reminds us of the diplomatic minuet that accompanies U.S. objectives in the subcontinent. Peace and stability is a key regional goal. Getting there is hard.
The U.S. is the sole global superpower. Yet, its writ in the war torn South Asia is quite limited. In the last quarter century, Afghanistan has been in various stages of conflict. India and Pakistan have differed to the point of war over Kashmir for seventy plus years. Two of the world's newest nuclear powers, India and Pakistan belong to the region. There is no shortage of disagreements even as all regional countries need economic development and stability.
While India has moved further and faster toward a distinctly differ
ent future, it remains mired in sub-continental problems. Terrorism, water and energy scarcity, separatist movements all take their toll. With China the reference point, India is indeed held back by these issues. Political troubles along its borders makes for less security even within India. Today's global reach makes for inter-dependence. Terrorists know that. So should governments.
2014 will launch a new phase of U.S. engagement. Most of the forces sent in after 9/11 will be returning home. A residual military presence will likely remain in major cities. Afghan society remains tribal. Ethnic differences are not far below the surface. American departure could unleash a wave of score-settling. Many Afghans feel the U.S. chose sides. A back lash is very likely.
All bordering countries have a stake in an independent and secure Afghanistan. Everyone says the right thing but actions will count. No one needs to forget that the Taliban, once a Pakistani creation, have acquired other patrons along the way. Their lack of a world view frees them from rational behavior in promoting a shared vision for their country.
At some point, the U.S. will have to face the fact that large and crucial areas of Pakistan in the north are slipping out of Islamabad's control. Pressing Islamabad endlessly on Afghanistan does not deal with the fact the U.S. has made Afghanistan its own business. No other regional capital can deliver what years of U.S. involvement, military and political, have not, a country at peace within its turbulent neighborhood.