The South Asia Channel

Goodbye “AfPak” (Can’t say I’ll miss you)

Goodbye “AfPak” (Can’t say I’ll miss you)

As I scrolled through my Inbox earlier this week for my daily news clippings from this blog, something seemed amiss. Instead of "AfPak Channel," the header read "South Asia Channel." An error I presumed. Scrolling down further, however, I realized the error was mine: "Next Monday, November 25, the AfPak Channel will be relaunched as the South Asia Channel" with the addition of "key stories and insights from India."

The notification got me thinking about the twists and turns in Washington’s conception of South Asia over the past decade. Somewhere along the way "AfPak" had appeared. Due to the distortions it produced, the phrase has for some time now been winding its way into retirement. The 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan will give it the final push. AfPak will no doubt have plenty of company with "hearts and minds" and countless other pithy friends in Washington’s little known Archives for Foreign Affairs Shorthands of Fleeting Value. Can’t say I’ll miss it.

I came to Washington ten years ago to work as an analyst in the Henry L. Stimson Center’s South Asia program. Having grown up in Pakistan, I had actually never uttered the phrase "South Asia." The region to me was a simple, if tormented, duality: Pakistan and India. I discovered that in Washington, South Asia meant the same two players, and the issues boiled down to Kashmir, militancy, military, and nuclear issues. Afghanistan was relegated to its own war-torn limbo.

At the time, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were talking about peace between the two countries. Both have since fallen silent, with the former facing treason charges; between India’s upcoming elections and Pakistan’s unending turmoil, peace commands little attention in Delhi and Islamabad today. The United States was two years into the war in Afghanistan, yet the lens on South Asia was varied. Afghanistan was a policy imperative, but so was managing the Indo-Pak rivalry and the risk of nuclear escalation.

Those working on South Asia in Washington seemed to fall into two camps. The South Asia wallahs had spent decades working in and on the region, often with formal academic training. The Cold Warriors sought to apply lessons from a superpower rivalry to a relatively nascent nuclear dynamic on the subcontinent. They reflected the fluidity of functional analysts within the strategic community — crossing boundaries while the regionalists remained in their lanes.

Soon enough, a new crop of functional analysts crossed over. They anchored their world views on a different issue: counterterrorism. Thereafter came "AfPak." The phrase traces back to the first year of the Obama administration and the tenure of the first Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Richard Holbrooke. A region that was once viewed as India-Pakistan, with Afghanistan on the margins, gave way to India on one hand and Afghanistan-Pakistan on the other. 

With the change, India got its wish to be "de-hyphenated" from Pakistan. The Bush administration keenly helped facilitate this shift via a civil nuclear deal, in light of India’s perceived strategic import in Asia. Meanwhile, AfPak eventually flipped to "PakAf" given deepening concerns about the various militant groups that were "veritable" arms of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the safety of its nuclear arsenal.

To be sure, AfPak helped focus attention on the war in Afghanistan after a misguided invasion in Iraq. It framed the theatre and the operational challenge posed by "safe havens" in Pakistan. Though Holbrooke espoused a wider view within its confines on forging a broader partnership with Pakistan that extended beyond kinetic issues, the diplomatic piece was and remains fluid, messy, and hard. As the war wore on, patience and imagination dried up. AfPak became shorthand for CT (counterterrorism) — far too constricted a prism for the colors and complexities of the region.  

The Obama administration eventually recognized the limits of the AfPak moniker itself; Islamabad made sure of it. Like Delhi, it had its own gripes about being lumped with its neighbor. Little wonder then that regional integration in South Asia is among the lowest in the world. Yet even as the phrase largely vanished from official public statements, it continued to periodically surface and, importantly, cast a shadow in Washington — until now.

As the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan winds down by the end of 2014, AfPak is undergoing its own retrograde. The office that embodies the term, SRAP, will need to assess not whether but how and when to reintegrate within the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.

Think tanks in Washington are also rebooting their South Asia programs. Some are doing so in the pre-AfPak mold, others with variation. The Brookings Institution, for example, now has a stand-alone India program, focusing on politics and economics, as much as foreign policy — kaleidoscope eyes on a potential Asian power. Along with and related to the shifting geopolitical winds are the interests of funders who share Washington’s AfPak fatigue. Their weariness, however, cannot match that in the region whose "troubles" (to borrow from Northern Ireland) are likely to rage on.

Newer shorthands such as the "rebalance" or "pivot" to Asia have also provided a new prism with which to look on South Asia. A fresh crop of scholarship has arisen on how South Asia relates to the Asia-Pacific region, from the "Indo-Pacific" concept to Pakistan’s role in the rebalance — welcome efforts to think beyond traditional silos in an interconnected Asia.  

The periodic reimagination of South Asia in Washington is as inevitable as it is easy to miss. We are in such a transition right now. So come next Monday, when the "South Asia Channel" pops up my Inbox, I will be fumbling a bit to figure out how all the pieces fit. So might you.

Ziad Haider is the Director of the Truman National Security Project’s Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice and as a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter at @Asia_Hand. The views expressed are his own.