Southwest Asia presents U.S. policymakers with some of their most difficult and seemingly intractable foreign policy problems. While some of the region’s problems, for example, the former Maoist insurgency in Nepal and the protracted civil war that raged for decades in Sri Lanka have finally been resolved (although, in the case of the latter, Tamil aspirations for independence could eventually reignite that conflict at any time), the region’s most dangerous problems remain unresolved. India and Pakistan remain in a state of perpetual conflict, although their current governments have kept nationalistic/religious fervor in their respective countries to a minimum – a situation that could change soon with the election of a Hindu nationalist to be prime minister of India. With both countries possessing nuclear weapons and both countries harboring considerable numbers of extremists, the potential for the world’s first nuclear war remains focused on the issues that divide India and Pakistan, mainly Hindu versus Muslim sentiments and the future of the region of Kashmir.
Southwest Asia, of course, is also where Afghanistan sits, and the situation there does not look good. The government of President Hamid Karzai remains extremely corrupt and inefficient, while the Taliban continues to control significant swaths of the country. Once American troops in Afghanistan are finally removed, or at least seriously decreased in number, the potential for a resurgent Taliban militia to retake Kabul is disturbingly high. If that occurs, then not only will the most repressive Islamic movement in the world return to power, but the al Qaeda terrorist network could reestablish itself in Afghanistan’s rugged mountains.
An added dimension to the issue of Afghanistan is the extent to which it has become the center of so much geopolitical maneuvering among not only myriad Afghani factions (for example, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara and other ethnicities all vying for power against the Pashtun majority), but also among the countries surrounding it. Pakistan views control of Afghanistan as one of its highest priorities; Iran has increased its presence in the west, especially around Herat, and India views it as a potential strategic asset in its confrontations with Pakistan and China. In short, Afghanistan has emerged as the most dangerous potential threat to international stability in the region. While the India-Pakistan nuclear stand-off represents the most dangerous contingency in the event of another war between the two, both governments recognize the risks associated with pushing the other too far, although Pakistan never seems too far from precipitating another crisis like that in Mumbai in November 2008, when terrorists supported by Pakistan’s intelligence service carried out massive attacks in that Indian metropolis.
The greatest single threat emanating from Southwest Asia, then, could be considered to be a nuclear-armed Pakistan continuing to engage in highly provocative activities directed against its larger neighbor. That said, the continuing threat from al Qaeda – currently more of a problem in Yemen than in Afghanistan – and other Islamist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba poses the most direct threat to the continental United States.
[For purposes of discussion, Iran is considered part of the Near East, as opposed to Southwest Asia. It’s long border with Afghanistan, however, makes it a part of the calculations when considering the instability in Afghanistan.]