Asia agenda

March 18, 2005|By Dennis Kux and Karl F. Inderfurth

THIS WEEK'S visit to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan by Condoleezza Rice early in her tenure as secretary of state sends an important signal - that the Bush administration intends to pay close attention to a region that is increasingly important to U.S. interests and central to the war on terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation.

Indeed, there has been a remarkable turnaround in America's relations with each of these three countries in the past several years.

The change with India that began under President Bill Clinton accelerated during President Bush's first term. Cold War estrangement has been replaced with across-the-board engagement between Washington and New Delhi.

A recent report by the National Intelligence Council, "Mapping the Global Future," helps to explain why it was time to get our relations with India on the right track. It said, "A combination of sustained high economic growth, expanding military capabilities, active promotion of high technologies, and large population" will be at the root of India's emergence as a "new major global player" in this century.

Mr. Bush's policy challenge in his second term is to maintain the positive momentum. An important step would be for an early Bush visit to India to provide a symbolic seal on the rapprochement between the world's two biggest democracies.

Ties with Pakistan have improved dramatically since President Pervez Musharraf became a key partner in the war against terrorism after 9/11. Pakistan provides invaluable assistance in countering al-Qaida, and for that it has been generously rewarded by the Bush administration with economic and military aid.

But bilateral relations with Islamabad are not without problems. Pakistan's democratic institutions remain weak, Islamic extremism and anti-American sentiments are strong, the man in the street has seen little economic improvement and there have been extraordinarily dangerous nuclear proliferation activities.

In its second term, the Bush administration should be more actively engaged in assisting General Musharraf to deliver on his policy of "enlightened moderation."

Pakistan needs real, not just rhetorical, progress in improving its abysmal educational and social indices. Washington is investing $66 million this year in education there and should consider doubling that figure. The United States should also be prepared to use its increased influence to ensure that the 2007 national elections are not a repeat of the flawed 2002 polls, which were orchestrated by General Musharraf.

An important byproduct of better relations with Pakistan and India has been to enhance the ability of the United States to discretely urge the two to improve ties with each other. More than a year ago, India extended a "hand of friendship" and Pakistan reciprocated. Should the process stall, it is important that Washington work to help keep the talks going toward settling their dispute over Kashmir.

If the United States sells nuclear-capable F-16 aircraft to both India and Pakistan, this could intensify a regional arms race and reduce the U.S. ability to nudge the peace process forward.

Finally, the turn in U.S. relations with Afghanistan has been perhaps the most striking of all. Afghanistan, the first battleground in the war on terror, has made remarkable progress. The Bush administration, with strong support from Congress, deserves great credit for providing political, economic and security help to the Afghans. The failure of the neo-Taliban to disrupt the presidential election in October and the resoundingly large turnout shows how far things have come politically.

But major challenges remain. Immediately ahead are parliamentary elections, an exercise more difficult than the presidential polling. To maintain the legitimacy of Afghanistan's fledgling democracy, it is essential that fair and peaceful elections be held before next winter.

A far tougher and dangerous challenge comes from soaring narcotics production, which threatens to turn the country into a narco-mob state. While there are no quick fixes, it is imperative that the major players - Britain, the United States, the United Nations and, of course, the government of Hamid Karzai, which is making the anti-narcotics effort a top priority - agree on a common approach or face certain failure.

That Ms. Rice has gone to the region so soon after taking office gives grounds for qualified hope that Washington's high-level attention and resources will be forthcoming during Mr. Bush's second term.

Dennis Kux, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001, is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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