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Understanding US reactions of events in South Asia

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

Several years ago, I was at the United States (US) Congress, and after one meeting went to see a Congressman who was working with me on a human rights issue.  When I entered his outer office, I saw the Congressman’s Chief of Staff, sitting on the couch with a human rights activist who was showing her videos on his laptop.  The videos were heart wrenching:  victimized minorities crying and forlorn; their ransacked homes; scenes that I have seen close-up.  That, however, is not what the Congressman’s staff person was getting from it.  She and others on Capitol Hill see these tragedies all the time.  They were not unique, nothing she had not seen before; and now something that was taking her from duties that would help others.  As soon as she saw me enter the room, she looked up with plaintive eyes that cried, ‘please get me out of here.’  And she did use my entrance as an excuse to break away from the videos and escort me into the Congressman’s office.

I know the staff person.  She is not at all unfeeling.  Rather she is acutely aware of the plight of minorities, and has extended herself many times to help.  I also know the human rights activist.  He is a good man and someone who puts himself in danger constantly to save persecuted minorities.  He is effective in his home country; and the things he was showing were accurate, as was the point he wanted to make.  Unfortunately, he never got a chance to make that point effectively.  The reason was not any deficiency on his part or the lack of valid evidence.  The reason is that the Congressman and his staff did not see how this related to the US and why the activist was coming to him specifically.

Justice and human rights are indeed part of US foreign policy by law; and yes, the cause was a worthy one.  We must understand, however, that most US lawmakers receive requests for help from so many worthy causes; and since minorities face terrible treatment almost everywhere around the world, the sort of thing on the activist’s laptop was nothing new.  As much as many would like to do so, they cannot support all of them.  They have only so much time, psychic energy, and resources, and they must meet their commitments to the voting public and to the United States.   Why should they devote those limited resources to one cause rather than another?  What makes any particular cause compelling?

Making that case is critical, and if the cause is just, there are many ways to do that.  This article focuses on the most basic thing people need to know if they are to have any chance of success in getting US support:  What are US interests?  What are the immediate priorities (and opportunities)?  What concerns the American people?  And how might any particular cause relate to them?

For those of us championing South Asian issues, this is a most opportune time.  We are seeing a sea change in US foreign policy from that which dominated most of this century, and an especially sharp turn from that which characterized the past eight years.  Since 9/11, much of US foreign policy has been driven by the need to defeat radical Islam.  Yet despite the initial action in Afghanistan and the ongoing conflict there; most attention on radical Islam has been in the Middle East, most recently the military successes over and impending defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the growing alliance of Sunni Muslim nations, often working with Israel to stop Iranian expansion; and the intricacies of the roles played by the United States and Russia in the region.

Increasingly, however, American policy-makers are recognizing that South Asia is the next important arena for this struggle.As I have said numerous times, though we will defeat ISIS and run them out of the Middle East, it already has found a welcoming home in South Asia.  Add to that, the rise of a friendly India, the decline of US-Pakistan relations, and China’s expansion in the region; and there are further opportunities to cast the issues we face in a context that advances American interests, as well.

If you are not an American, you might well ask, “Why should I care whether or not I further US interests?”

And there is no reason in and of itself.  If you want US officials to select your cause over others and US taxpayers to spend their hard-earned dollars on it, you have a very good reason to care.  So what are those interests and priorities, and how do they relate to South Asia?

  • First, to prevent Afghanistan and South Asia from again becoming terror havens that give shelter to our enemies and become places where they plan and launch attacks on the United States. This would be a return to pre-9/11 Afghanistan, home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda; to Mullah Mohammad Umar and Osama bin Laden.  Americans have not forgotten that the attack on them was planned and prepared in Afghanistan, and its mastermind and terrorist leader was sheltered for years after the attack in Pakistan.  There has not been any significant military action on the US homeland since the US Civil War in the mid-nineteenth century, and Americans want to keep it that way.  Threats against the US posed by radical Islamists are unacceptable to Americans, and eliminating them is the number one priority in our foreign policy.  Show how you can further that and you will get a serious hearing.
  • Second, to contain and defeat radical Islam; the open and active terrorists, and those who give them shelter, support, or ideological cover.This is not a battle against Islam, which is a religion that goes back 14 centuries. It is a war to defeat radical Islam, which is a political philosophy dating back less than two centuries.  Being able to tell who represents one vs. the other is a critical component that victory.  True Muslim allies represent the best in that quest to Americans, but we are getting better at not letting false “moderates”fool us into thinking they are our friends.   The need to distinguish those who wish us ill from those who do not is the essence of my book <a href=”http://www.akshayaprakashan.com/index.php?p=sr&Uc=9788188643653”>What is Moderate Islam.
  • Third, to maintain some level of US influence in South Asia even after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. US influence is waning in Pakistan; growing in India.  What about Afghanistan and the various peoples struggling to break free from Pakistani occupation?
  • Fourth, to stop Chinese expansion in the region, which has been proceeding slowly but consistently during the years of a less aggressive US foreign policy. Examples of Chinese expansionism in the region are:  the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); Chinese troops occupying of parts of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh in India; Chinese control over major sources of Afghan mineral wealth; and the Chinese workers (as opposed to local ones) that are flooding into areas of CPEC activity.
  • Fifth, to stop Iranian expansion in the region. Iran is an open exporter of terror whose leaders have articulated a foreign policy that seeks the destruction of the United States of America, and its most critical ally, Israel.  Iran has meddled in internal Afghan matters in an attempt to exploit Sunni-Shia divides, and Taliban terrorists fall right into their trap with attacks on Hazara and other Shiites.  CPEC will make Pakistan a Chinese proxy, and its successful completion threatens to bring about an alliance between Iran and China.

Gaining US aid and support requires that requests be cast in a compelling argument that shows how it will further one or more of the above priorities.

The people of Afghanistan and adjacent areas are positioned to make that case most effectively by supporting several of the currently suppressed national groups in the region. Umar Duad Khattak is a Pashtun activist from Khyber Pashtunkhwa.  When he was eight years old, his father—a Taliban supporter—enrolled him in a madrassa where he spent ten years.  In his contribution to What is Moderate Islam, he writes that radical Islam’s “current target… is to defeat nationalism among the Muslims who do not want to be merged into a global Islamic Caliphate.”  Muslims like others have multiple elements to their identity—country, ethnic group, and religion among others.  Radical Islam wants everything but Islam to be incidental in a Muslim’s identity; for Muslims to see themselves first to last as Muslim.  The efforts of predominantly Muslim South Asian peoples, struggling for independence from Islamic states like Pakistan and Iran—Baloch, Sindhi, Pashtun, and others—are a direct threat to the ethic radicals want to impose on everyone else.  Empowering these peoples and supporting them in their struggle is one of the most effective ways to defeat radical Islamists and their ideology of a supreme Muslim ummah; and presenting potential supporters with a plan that does so is likely to get a fair hearing.

From the early days of his campaign for President through his current foreign policy as President, Donald Trump’s has said that he wants to work with others to defeat our common enemies; to defend American interests without US troops or misguided attempts at nation-building.  Even while announcing a small increase in US troops in Afghanistan recently, Trump declared that we are “not nation-building again… we are killing terrorists.”  He also has clarified tighter and better defined US expectations of the Afghan and Pakistani governments.  The speech and recent US actions emphasized our priorities; and supporting a detailed plan for minority empowerment in both countries will further the aims of current US foreign policy.
Americans have no desire to determine how South Asians rule themselves.  We are not looking to do what European colonizers previously did in creating nations according to their interests.  When the terrorists are defeated—and they will be so don’t be on the wrong side of a fight—and polyglot states like Pakistan are re-constituted so justice applies equally to all peoples living there; what will this part of the world look like?  What sort of political and geo-political structures will replace those currently in place?  That is up to the peoples of South Asia, not the Europeans who threw together the current countries and drew maps that satisfied their interests.

Dr. Richard L. Benkin (twitter: @drrbenkin) is an American human rights activists with strong ties in Washington. His latest book, What is Moderate Islam is available at http://www.akshayaprakashan.com/index.php?p=sr&Uc=9788188643653.  To contact him for speeches, meetings, or about his services, email him at drrbenkin@comcast.net.

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