The South Asia will be fulcrum to US policy in Asia has been a general belief with foreign affairs wizards, geo-strategic experts and political pundits in and around Washington. The region would prominently figure in the presidential election campaign and the debate has been part of the belief.
Some factors that contributed to this belief have been increasing role of China in the region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) emerging as an alternative mechanism to fill the vacuum once Western troops depart from Afghanistan. The challenges after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, institutionalization of democracy in the war ravaged country and challenges of militancy in Pakistan. Possibilities of an alliance between three Muslim countries, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the region and non-resolution of disputes between India and Pakistan more particularly Kashmir and their implications on peace in the region have also contributed to the perception.
Unlike in all previous presidential elections, the 2012 election campaigns and debates so far have been focusing on the worst economic crisis and challenges the sole superpower is confronting. The priorities of the economically sinking country were more than obvious on October 3, 2012 during the first debate between President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney held in Denver, Colorado. Healthcare, Medicare cuts, taxes, education and unemployment dominated the debate. The discussion between the candidates as a newspaper described it “often unfolded in a staccato of statistics, making it difficult to follow.”
Domestic problems have largely overshadowed the United States role outside its territories. Key global issues like Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, India-Pakistan relations and Kashmir, China and drone attacks in Somalia, Yemen and Northern areas that have been in focus in the recent past did not figure in the debate. According to report by experts from Stanford Law School and the New York University School of Law total deaths by drone attacks between June 2004 and September 2012 were between 2,562 and 3,325, with 474 to 881 of them civilians.
The scene during 2008, President Election campaign was very different. South Asian region with all its challenges and problems was at the central of the Presidential debates. The focus was on not only Afghanistan, India and Pakistan relations but Kashmir also attracted headlines in many American newspapers. In many interviews, Barak Obama referred to Kashmir and saw its resolution vital for peace in the region:
“Talking to Rachel Meadow on MSNBC on October 30, 2008, he said, ‘We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.” On September 25, 2008, in an interview to ‘Journal Arms Control Today’ he said, ‘I will continue support of ongoing Indian Pakistani efforts to resolve Kashmir problem in order to address the political roots of the arms race between India and Pakistan.” In an interview with CNN he had focused his attention on the South-Asia and seen resolution of Kashmir as an important contributing factor in containing and eliminating roots of terrorism in Afghanistan.” (Living Uncertainties: Kashmir people and problem page 235). Describing Kashmir as critical task in an interview to Joe Klein of Time in October 2008, he made public that he intended to appoint an envoy on Kashmir:
“Working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve, and Kashmir, crisis in a serious way. Those are all critical tasks for the next administration. Kashmir in particular is an interesting situation where that is obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically. But, for us to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this? To make the argument to the Pakistanis, look at India and what they are doing, why do you want to keep being bogged down with this particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan boarder? I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.”
New Delhi opposed appointment of M. Holbrook as an envoy on Kashmir and succeeding in scuttling the move. However, Bobby Gosh of Time had not seen it as an occasion to celebrate and had asked Indian bureaucracy “to hold off on the champagne” as “the Obama Administration was unlikely to ease up efforts to pressure India to come to terms with Pakistan over Kashmir dispute.” How Kashmir later on last its primacy for Obama administration is an important subject that calls for a thorough study by academia but the question that calls for attention here is does South Asia not being part of Presidential election debate indicate that Washington has washed its hands of the region. Moreover, it has lost interest in disputes in the region.
It is true that studies carried by institutes like Pew Research Centre suggest that the issues at the top of voter’s agenda have changed little since 2008 but several other issues have declined in importance and right now economy is the top concern of the people. But, it would be naïve to think that this change in people’s priority will change ‘mainstream American policy.’ The South Asian region with its entire dispute will continue to hold its importance and resolution of these disputes will gain greater importance after US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
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