U.S. Launches Full Court Diplomatic Press in South Asia and the Middle East

Richard Holbrooke, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, holds enormous influence over President Obama’s South Asia policy.

In January and February there were many indicators that something was afoot in Afghanistan and the wider South Asian region: a series of major diplomatic and military initiatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even India. Now in March we learn that the diplomatic initiatives also extend to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. These dramatic breakthroughs are occurring at a time when the US government is trying to impose new sanctions on Iran in order to prevent that state from developing nuclear weapons.

All these major developments are occurring within a short time span and, consequently, point to a broad US initiative as well as to the Obama administration’s thinking on the problems plaguing these countries: it sees them as linked. By “linked” it is meant that one problem will be extremely difficult (maybe even impossible) to resolve without first fixing another problem. The Obama administration believes correctly that South Asia’s major crises are linked, and it may think that the Iranian nuclear crisis is linked to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

If it could be demonstrated that Iran’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons is for national security reasons, for instance, to counter Israel’s nuclear arsenal, then the two crises are linked. The same would be true if it could be shown that Iran’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons is to use them to destroy Israel. If either of these two justifications for Iran seeking nuclear weapons is true then the two crises are linked.

It could be that the Obama administration is stepping up its efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, in tandem with its broader efforts in the region, because such efforts would boost US credibility in the Muslim world, perhaps making it easier for the US to achieve its other objectives. In any case, unlike the South Asian crises, the Iranian nuclear crisis is probably treatable without first resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

What is certain is that any fundamental long-term change in US-Iran relations is linked to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. This is because there can be no peace treaty between Israel and Iran (such as exists between Israel and Egypt) so long as the Israeli-Palestinian crisis continues.

A core principal in Iran’s foreign policy is fighting for the Palestinians’ future. Hypothetically, suppose the US and Iranian governments resolved their differences and plotted a course to restore full diplomatic relations. Such a breakthrough would be shattered the moment another outbreak in violence occurred between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Iran would come to the aid of the Palestinians by providing them weapons and logistical support, and this would instantly damage US-Iran relations.

Pashtun Ethnic Map from Heritage.org. Click on the map twice to enlarge it.

South Asia’s main foreign policy problems are indisputably linked. The insurgency in Afghanistan is composed of a large segment of the Pashtun ethnic group. The Pashtuns straddle both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Afghanistan insurgency is indigenous to Afghanistan but it is also rooted in Pakistan, among the Pakistani Pashtuns. There is a separate “Pakistani Taliban” movement, and the Afghan Taliban leadership is located in Pakistan as well. It is also widely accepted that some elements within the Pakistani government, namely in its intelligence community, assist the Afghan Taliban.

This means that to weaken the Afghanistan insurgency, diplomatic and military efforts also must occur and be successful in Pakistan, and this is happening today. However, to resolve the Pakistan government element to Afghanistan’s crisis, Pakistan’s crisis with India must be addressed. At the heart of this ongoing Pakistan-India dispute is the Kashmir Province, which both countries lay claim too.

The Pakistan-India problem needs to be resolved because it has helped shape Pakistan’s foreign policy in Afghanistan, which has been to work with the Pashtuns -including the Taliban- to gain influence in Afghanistan. Known as “strategic depth” (see a counter opinion), the Pakistani government believes that such a strategy will expand Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and this will help keep Indian influence in Afghanistan to a minimum, thus protecting Pakistan’s northern border with Afghanistan.

On February 25, Pakistan-India peace talks restarted for the first time since the Mumbai Massacre in late-November of 2008 shut down negotiations between the two countries. There was already at least one attempt to sabotage the talks and maybe another so the success of these talks remains an uphill climb.

The good news is that there is increasing evidence that the Pakistani government’s strategic depth policy is evolving for the good. Undoubtedly, Pakistan will continue to seek as much influence in Afghanistan as possible as any state would. However, its protection of the Afghan Taliban appears to have ended.

Signs of this change appeared in February with the arrests of Mullah Baradar (the Afghan’s Taliban second-in-command) and two Afghan Taliban shadow governors. In late February it was announced that the Pakistani government had arrested half of the Quetta Shura, or the Afghan Taliban’s leadership council. In retaliation, the Afghan Taliban may be targeting Pakistani citizens in Afghanistan.

While efforts in Afghanistan continue to be difficult, it is the Iranian nuclear crisis that keeps President Obama awake at night. He has met with surprising success in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but has stumbled on Iran just like his predecessor. US policy for Iran is failing. A nuclear-armed Iran is a worst-case scenario for the West, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states.

1 comment for “U.S. Launches Full Court Diplomatic Press in South Asia and the Middle East

  1. March 11, 2010 at 9:46 am

    It looks like the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have already broken down over Israel’s recent announcement to build 1,600 new homes in the West Bank. That said, there is still no doubt that the US government is working hard to get something started here. Whether it will succeed is another story.

Comments are closed.