Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., said it is difficult to balance increased use of cyber defense systems with protection of civil liberties. (David Uberti/ Medill)

WASHINGTON – President Obama’s announcement that U.S. defense interests will shift to the Western Pacific raised eyebrows among many policy experts, several of whom warned that losing focus on South Asia could have drastic consequences for national security.

Mishandling the current situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they say, could lead to increased political uncertainty, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and international conflict.

Despite military withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for the end of 2014 and an increasingly tenuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship, an American presence in South Asia is essential to maintain regional stability, according to Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute.

Speaking at a Potomac Institute forum Wednesday, Weinbaum said the U.S. has a history of turning its back on the region following military interventions.

“Haunting our foreign policy is our reputation for unreliability and inconsistency,” Weinbaum said. “There are ways other than the military alone that we can maintain a presence.”

Weinbaum said political instability – especially in Pakistan – could indirectly lead to a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India.  Without an extended American presence, he said  it’s “naïve” to think that the Afghan government will become stable – or that neighboring Pakistan will commit to non-proliferation.

The concerns come as the Pakistani military and judiciary continue to clash with the nation’s civilian government. Whispers of a military takeover – Pakistan has had three successful coups since 1958 – have added yet another reason for U.S. concern, said Sharon Squassoni, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The problems with political stability in Pakistan pose a huge problem [for nuclear security],” Squassoni said. “Could we be sure that Pakistan could walk away from a crisis? There are very few mechanisms for crisis stability there.”

U.S. Foreign Aid to Pakistan Since 2002

Pakistan’s internal “soap opera” could easily spill into Afghanistan or – worse yet – India, said Teresita Schaffer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

While the experts agreed U.S. cooperation with Pakistan is in its best interests, they also acknowledged the reality of the countries’ relationship.

A drone strike that killed two dozen Pakistani troops in November drew the ire of Pakistan, which has been a launching pad for American military missions in Afghanistan for a decade. The CIA resumed drone strikes last week after a two-month hiatus intended to ease U.S.-Pakistani tensions.

On Wednesday, however, the Pakistani government in Islamabad declined a visit from a U.S. envoy, stating it could “fuel anti-American sentiments and create trouble,” CNN reported.

“The fundamental difference [between the U.S. and Pakistan]…is the underlying assumption that we share broad strategic goals,” Schaffer said. “This turns out to be, at best, half right.”

Nonetheless, a working relationship with Pakistan will be essential in maintaining regional stability, the experts agreed, especially given the shrinking ground forces and changing security focus of the Pentagon’s new defense plan.

The new strategy highlights weapons of mass destruction and cybersecurity as the top two American defense interests, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., said earlier Wednesday. Both are concerns in South Asia.

Ruppersberger added that fostering stronger diplomatic ties in the region will be essential in neutralizing these threats and maintaining political stability.

“We have to work together,” said Ruppersberger, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. “[The U.S.] can’t be the sheriff of the world anymore.”