04/05/2013 01:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

Avoiding Armageddon : South Asia's Perennial Challenge

A decade after their partnership in the war on terrorism, the United States and Pakistan are still uneasy to describe each other as trusted allies. Both the countries find little common ground to further engage as close partners. The future of the relationship looks uncertain as the United States prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington, D.C., Husain Haqqani, recommended that the United States and Pakistan should break up because "the United States would be able to deal with issues such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation without the burden of Pakistani allegations of betrayal."

A number of books, prominently How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster by Teresita C. Schaffer and Howard B. Schaffer, have endeavored to understand the complicated nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Most books on the subject conclude that Pakistan arms itself and formulates domestic and foreign policies while enlisting India as the biggest threat to its national security. Therefore, it is important, in the first place, to understand Pakistan's insecurities toward and frequent armed intrusions (through Jihadist groups) inside India before finding out why Islamabad and Washington have such bumpy ties.

Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel's latest book, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, Pakistan to the brink and back, precisely makes that unique attempt to understand the bilateral issues of South Asia's two biggest powers; their foreign policy toward the United States and how Washington's regional policy influences the part of the world dominated by the nuclear armed neighbors. The writer's insights, based on his firsthand interactions and policy advice offered to at least four American presidents, are extremely helpful in understanding how the United States approaches the region and what limitations it faces while encouraging India and Pakistan to resolve their long-standing disputes.

The book comes at a significant time when the U.S. policy toward South Asia seems to be changing and redefining the history of dull and short-term relationships by focusing more on economic cooperation instead of merely sticking to issues related to the military and security. Mr. Riedel laments that Washington's lack of attention to South Asia in the past as it was the "stepchild of Near East" at the State Department until "the Congress forced the first Bush administration to set up a separate bureau in 1992."

It is simply hard to overlook today's South Asia because of the enormous challenges it faces and economic opportunities it offers. South Asia, especially India, offers remarkable opportunities of economic cooperation for the United States.

"Today South Asia is at a unique moment in its history. India is more prosperous and democratic than ever before, it is growing rapidly, and its democracy is deeply ingrained in the national psyche," Mr. Riedel writes.

In order to accomplish that, the region must achieve uninterrupted peace. Peace, on its part, is attainable only by resolving all outstanding disputes between India and Pakistan. The United States and India can help, although not an easy task, to normalize the belligerent Pakistani state by offering opportunities of economic prosperity.

Pakistan, a nation with nearly 180 million people, is dangerously descending into chaos; the state continues to support and harbor religious terrorists. According to Mr. Riedel, three prominent terrorists, all carrying head money on them, are currently living inside Pakistan. These terrorists include Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar and Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization India blames for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. These terrorists pose a genuine security threat to the United States, Afghanistan, India and even Pakistan itself.

"The next coup [in Pakistan] were to be led by a general in the mold of Zia ul-Haq, it could mean the transformation of Pakistan into a Jihadist state. That would be a global nightmare."

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has gone from bad to worse in the past few years because of conflicting interests and deepening trust deficit. Pakistan is the world's third largest recipient of American foreign aid but, at the same time, it remains a deeply troubling nation for Washington. It is the home to the second highest anti-American population in the world, Jordan being on the top of the list. In Pakistan, according to Pew Research Global Attitude project, 80 percent people have an unfavorable opinion about the United States. That country's India-centric approach somehow contributes to this depressing situation.

Avoiding Armageddon provides a rich historical context of the United States relationship with Pakistan and India. While Pakistanis believe that the United States deals with their country only based on its interests in Afghanistan, the Indians historically, on the other hand, distanced themselves from Washington as they refused to serve as a counterbalance against China. According to Mr. Riedel, Indian prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi "had been difficult interlocutors for four American presidents; only Kennedy had succeeded in building a real partnership with the Indians."

"Indira Gandhi did not need America. She was convinced that Nixon was her enemy, and she harbored suspicions that the CIA was determined to assassinate her." In contrast, Nixon remained such a staunch supporter of Pakistan that he described it as a "country I would do anything for. They have less complexities than the Indians."

Mr. Riedel also writes about the significance of previous travel experience for U.S. presidents and their personal friendships with the regional heads of the government in fostering relationships. Unfortunately, very few American presidents have had ample travel experience and cultural understanding of South Asia. While Nixon had visited South Asia three times before becoming the president, Ulysses S. Grant was the first American president to visit India and he, ironically, "saw more of India than any American president since." An institutional relationship is surely more consistent than personal friendships between the heads of the states.

India and Pakistan have failed to bilaterally resolve their disputes that have perpetuated weaponization, hunger and poverty in South Asia. They have fought three wars against each other. With both sides possessing nukes, it is extremely important for the United States to help both the nations to avoid what Riedel foresees as the Armageddon. While the voters in the United States reelected President Barack Obama in 2012, Pakistan and India are going to elect new prime ministers in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The new leadership in all three countries can work together to bring peace, stability and prosperity in South Asia. A coherent American South Asia policy that will encourage and assist in the resolution of Indo-Pak disputes will also remain consistent with American and global interests.