Looking Ahead to South Asia in 2013

In the coming year, the greater South Asia region will undergo significant changes. In advance of these transitions, the South Asia Center invited experts and Center supporters and contributors to share their predictions for the region in the coming year as well as offer advice for the second Obama administration on how best to approach greater South Asia (including Iran and Afghanistan).

M.J. Akbar, Editor-in-Chief, The Sunday Guardian
Huma Haque, South Asia Center Assistant Director, Atlantic Council
Sunjoy Joshi, Director, Observer Research Foundation
Shuja Nawaz, South Asia Center Director, Atlantic Council
Barbara Slavin, Resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council
Moeed Yusuf, South Asia Adviser, United States Institute of Peace


2013 Predictions

M.J. Akbar
Every election changes the government; even those who are re-elected are never quite the same as in their first incarnation. Barack Obama, for instance, does not need to keep that constant watch behind his back which gave him such a crick in the election campaign. Release from such cares will not necessarily make him careless, but it will certainly free his options particularly in the minefields of foreign policy. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are already in election mode. A lot of 2013 will be spent on a watching brief, and the rest in that interweave of overture, curiosity, exploration and disappointment or relief that defines any new or renewed relationship. There is little doubt that the three bands of Asia – West, south-Central and East – will occupy Washington more than any other part of the world, not least because they consist of two active war zones and one of confrontation. But it may make sense to concentrate on West Asia in 2013, and pitch the diplomatic tents in South-Central in the preordained year of 2014, when NATO begins to evacuate from Afghanistan. South Asia abhors a vacuum as much as nature, so there is some hard work. 2013 is the time to think ahead, and 2014 the moment to act. 

Huma Haque
Pakistan’s focus will carry on looking outward, as it evaluates its relationship with its immediate neighbors and the US, and will continue to lose sight of domestic issues, such as growing sectarian violence, the dismal state of education and lack of access to basic services for the majority of the country.   The US-Pakistan relationship is finally back on a seemingly positive trajectory and barring any big incidents will remain stable. In an effort to not seem too eager and have questionable intentions, Pakistan will stay at an arm’s length during the Afghan transition. And, opening the border between India and Pakistan could be the calling card for stability and peace building; people are eagerly awaiting the free flow of goods and people across the border. This could do wonders for both economies.

Sunjoy Joshi South Asia is at an inflexion point. Two distinct trends can shape 2013 in disparate ways. The first is the strengthening of centripetal forces in the sub-continent that could draw Pakistan and India closer. Cross-border trade, civil-society engagements and provincial level initiatives (from the two Punjabs) could provide the political impetus to the two countries as they script at times a frustratingly slow, yet measured course that charts a new vision for overthrowing the yoke of their chequered history. The second trend is the deepening of destructive forces that are at play between Morroco and Xinjiang. Failure to reach an organic solution in Syria can become the tipping point for a new wave of violence, instability and polarization. Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian, Israel- Palestine and other similar fissures could exacerbate instability in West and South West Asia, thereby undermining peace and stability in South Asia. 2013 AD may well be the year when the narrative unfolds in one or the other direction. 

Shuja Nawaz Election fever in Pakistan and pre-election fever in Iran, Afghanistan, and India will create a muddled and slow-moving process of regional integration. Weak coalition governments in India and Pakistan and a weakening government in Kabul do not bode well for peace and stability. Expect no major trade breakthroughs but a creeping progress toward opening borders and visa regimes that will allow bureaucrats to control things while their political masters struggle to maintain themselves in power. Heightened US drone activity will continue into 2014. And India and Pakistan risk a conflagration provoked by militant attacks across the border. The key words will be: crisis stability control. 

Barbara Slavin As I predicted accurately regarding 2012, there will be no war with Iran in 2013 and there is a 20 percent chance for an agreement that will make it more difficult for Iran to build nuclear weapons. The US and Iran will establish a secure back channel for talks on a wider range of issues including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Iran will get a new president who knows how to behave in polite company. Syrian rebels will assume control over more and more territory and launch successive attempts to seize Damascus. The King of Saudi Arabia will die.

Moeed Yusuf Around this time last year, U.S.-Pakistan relations had reached their nadir in the wake of the Salala tragedy. Today, things are seemingly on the up. The challenge last year was not to become too despondent when looking ahead; this time, it is to avoid getting carried away with the positive vibes emanating from Washington and Islamabad. I would not dismiss the very real, underlying disconnects that remain intact and may hold back progress between Pakistan and the U.S. over the coming year.

There are two polar opposite paths that the Pakistan-U.S. relationship can take – the key variable: developments in Afghanistan. Should the current efforts to get Afghan reconciliation going – with Pakistan having a central role in the process – deliver in terms of progress towards some sort of political deal in Kabul, one can expect to see positive knock off effects on Pakistan-U.S. relations. Both sides may find reason to curb their tendency of public rebuke; this in turn, may cool down the negative perceptions key institutions on both sides hold for the other side. Such a development is critical if bilateral ties have to be reset in a positive manner post-2014.

Quite to the contrary, despite efforts by Islamabad, Kabul, and Washington, we may find that initiatives to further the Afghan reconciliation agenda prove too little too late. The negotiation process may collapse; and Afghanistan may find it difficult to keep the progress it has made over the past decade intact. If so, we should expect a U.S.-Pakistan blame game all over again as they point to each other as the source of the failure. “Containment” of Pakistan may become the name of the game in Washington just as Pakistan’s already-ill informed narrative on Washington hardens further.