Leake, America in the Asian Century

Members of the Mujahideen relax in Kandar , Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War. 

Written by Elisabeth Leake

Considering the history of US-South Asia relations during the twentieth century, two very different issues come to light, depending on the degree of retrospection. If we take the same approach as many historians of the United States in the world, or of South Asian specialists, the focus inevitably falls on the United States’ relationship with India and Pakistan and the importance of Indo-Pakistani relations. If, as current observers, we reflect on the twenty-first-century direction of the subcontinent, the focus moves northwest towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – two countries which have significantly influenced international politics in the twenty-first century.

As an academic rooted in the study of South Asia, as well as twentieth-century international history, my work has tried to blend these two approaches, recognising longstanding US interest in South Asia but also arguing that this interest has been shaped by fraught Afghan-Pakistan relations since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. I emphasise the importance of understanding the longer history of US-Afghan-Pakistani relations to fully comprehend the subcontinent’s development during the twentieth century as well as the conflicts that have wrought this part of the world from the 1980s onwards.

In my recent book, I focus on the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands as a site of conflict rooted in local, national, regional, and international politics. Focusing on the area’s direction between 1936-65, I argue that the so-called ‘tribal area’ of Pakistan (now the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) has remained largely autonomous due to, on one hand, locals’ ability to evade state oversight and, on the other hand, various shortcomings on the part of first the British colonial, then Pakistani state. This border region has remained a centre of regional and international decision making due to the fraught nature of postcolonial state building, especially in an area that historically was never fully integrated into a ‘nation-state’, in its twentieth-century conception. Moreover, while a seemingly peripheral zone, if we look at a map of the world, the Pakistan’s frontier region effectively rests at the intersection of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. In one area, tribal area rests less than 13 miles from the former USSR and also borders China.

In this sense, the frontier tribal area’s very peripheral location has shaped its place in regional and international politics. First British, then US policymakers feared that the frontier area would serve as the gateway for Soviet infiltration of South Asia and the crucial Iranian oilfields. Suspicion of ongoing Indian and Afghan intrigue drove Pakistani state building – and the heavy use of the Pakistan Army to subdue any signs of local resistance. Because this area is so far from major centres of power – and thus the infrastructural, economic, political, and social ties that link it to the rest of the nation are potentially longer, looser, or more complicated – this lack of proximity has been the key source of the area’s continued importance in strategic thinking. In some respects, local developments and responses to state building, decolonisation, or a global Cold War (if these even were a local concern) mattered little: what mattered instead was the paranoia and fear driving decision makers in South Asia and beyond. Suspicion that the frontier tribal area might allow Soviet influence to spread south, east, and west or might spark a conflict engulfing South Asia is critical in understanding why a great power like the United States became heavily involved in an area that otherwise seems marginal.

Thus, while we can understand the rationales for US involvement in this region during the ‘Asian century’, we must reflect on the long-term implications of this involvement. While paranoia has driven policy, policy has inevitably shaped the local. In the case of the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands, this becomes most obvious in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During this, US leaders like Carter and Reagan used the historical ties between the United States and Pakistan to undermine the Afghan communist regime and its Soviet allies, sending money and men through the frontier tribal area and into Afghanistan. With this in mind, we can readily recognise that the United States has played a fundamental role in reasserting the frontier tribal area’s ‘otherness’. At a time of international conflict, US agents undermined the sovereignty of the Afghan-Pakistan border and encouraged further autonomy and independent action along the border region to thwart the communist spread.

As such, several questions come to mind that have implications not only for this specific area of the world but US relations with the global South more generally. How has US action in peripheral areas such as the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands undermined broader conceptions and acceptance of the ‘nation-state’ as the key mode of political action today? What is the historical trajectory underlying these seemingly peripheral areas that has led  such regions to have such a disproportionate influence (here we can think of numerous border communities across Asia and elsewhere)? Finally, how can we understand current dynamics in this part of the world if we introduce historical nuance and longer-term causality? These are only some of the issues I touched on when we met in Nottingham to discuss more broadly the question of the United States in the Asian century.

Elisabeth Leake is Lecturer in International History at the University of Leeds. Her work looks at the intersections between South Asian and international history and decolonization and the Cold War. Her book, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-1965, has recently been published by Cambridge University Press. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a symposium joint-funded by the Department of American & Canadian Studies, and the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Image Credit:  CC/ Wikimedia Commons

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