America has vital national security interests at stake in South Asia, including stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan and ensuring that neither country serves as a safe haven for global terrorists, keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons safe and secure and out of the hands of terrorists, preventing war between India and Pakistan, and building a strong strategic partnership with India to enhance its ability to play a stabilizing role in the broader Asia–Pacific region. The U.S. must maintain its diplomatic, economic, and military engagement in the region to protect these core national security interests.
Progress Against al-Qaeda. The U.S. has made major strides against al-Qaeda in the past year by enhancing its intelligence operations inside Pakistan and escalating drone missile strikes against terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal border areas. The U.S. raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden on May 2 at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, marked a turning point in the U.S. war on al-Qaeda. Since then, the U.S. has taken other senior al-Qaeda members off the battlefield, including number-two commander Atiyah abd al-Rahman through a drone strike in Pakistan in August and Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in September.
But the setbacks for al-Qaeda do not spell the end of global terrorism. Al-Qaeda affiliate organizations throughout South Asia and the Middle East remain motivated and capable. While the U.S. may be safer today than it has been at any time since the 9/11 attacks, it must remain vigilant at home and continue its engagement in South Asia. Failing to make additional progress in rooting out terrorism from Afghanistan and Pakistan could set the stage for future attacks on the U.S. homeland.
U.S.–Pakistan Relations. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan took a nosedive following the bin Laden raid last May. Pakistan’s military leadership reacted angrily to the fact that the U.S. conducted the raid unilaterally and expelled some 90 U.S. military trainers from the country to demonstrate its displeasure. The U.S., in turn, suspended $800 million (or about one-third) of its military aid to Pakistan.
While U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress that the Administration does not assess that senior Pakistani officials harbored bin Laden, the situation demands that Pakistan change its counterterrorism policies and end its ambiguity toward Islamist militancy. It is the Pakistan military and intelligence links with violent Islamist groups over the past 20 years that has ultimately led to a situation where the world’s most wanted terrorist could hide under the nose of the Pakistan military for six years.
Retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen’s blunt remarks to a Senate panel on September 22 that the Haqqani insurgent network was a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence demonstrates the high levels of frustration within the Administration over Pakistani policies in Afghanistan. Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqani network conducted the September 13 attack on the U.S. embassy as well as a major truck bombing against a NATO base that injured 77 soldiers on September 10. Pakistan’s reluctance to play a helpful role in promoting Afghan reconciliation and its defiance of U.S. calls to break ties to groups attacking the U.S. in Afghanistan are pushing the region into deeper conflict. Unless Pakistan agrees to work more closely with the U.S. in confronting groups that attack U.S. interests, the U.S. will have to recalibrate its policy toward Pakistan, despite the potential negative repercussions for other U.S. interests in the region.
Pakistani leaders assess that U.S. forces will depart the region prematurely and that continuing support for the Taliban and Haqqani network constitutes their best chance to counter Indian regional influence. Unfortunately, President Obama’s aggressive withdrawal strategy to remove 33,000 troops by next September only reinforces their view that the U.S. will depart Afghanistan before the situation is stabilized.
Afghanistan. The U.S. cannot afford to withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan and leave the Taliban once again to fill the void. Washington must allow conditions on the ground to determine the pace of U.S. withdrawal. The U.S. should also be clear that, even if it is not involved in direct combat operations after 2014, it will remain deeply engaged in Afghanistan diplomatically and economically and with a residual force focused on counterterrorism operations and providing support and advice to the Afghan security forces.
Securing Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons. The U.S. has given Pakistan crucial assistance to improve the safety and security of its nuclear arsenal. If the U.S. develops hostile relations with Pakistan, it will lose any ability to influence Pakistan’s handling of its nuclear assets. Perhaps the strongest argument for continuing to pursue engagement with Pakistan is to help ensure that its nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists.
Indo–Pakistani Tensions. The dispute over the status of Kashmir has been at the heart of Indo–Pakistani tensions since partition of the Subcontinent in 1947. In recent years, however, friction over Afghanistan has also contributed to their mutual hostility. An attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008 that killed over 50, including two senior Indian officials, and was allegedly directed by Pakistan’s intelligence service sparked anger in New Delhi but also reinforced its resolve to maintain influence and economic ties with Kabul.
Official bilateral dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi resumed in February of this year following a two-year hiatus caused by the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. In early November, Pakistan’s Cabinet approved a decision to give India the status of most favored nation, which would allow the two countries to trade on equal terms, giving each other low tariffs and high import quotas. Despite this step forward on trade issues, tensions over Afghanistan will continue to jeopardize prospects for a major thaw in Indo–Pakistani relations.
India’s Growing Role in the Asia–Pacific. The U.S. has a fundamental interest in developing a strategic partnership with rising democratic power India as it increasingly contributes to a stable order in the Asia–Pacific. India is enhancing its political and economic ties throughout East and Southeast Asia and strengthening its naval presence in the Indian Ocean region. The growing strategic challenge presented by a rising China should contribute to an increase in cooperation between Washington and New Delhi in defense and other key sectors, such as space, maritime security, and nuclear nonproliferation.
- Condition aid to Pakistan on its cracking down on terrorist groups attacking U.S. interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Pakistan continues to support the Haqqani network that has conducted increasingly brazen attacks on U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan also has failed to bring to justice terrorists allegedly involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed nearly 170, including six American citizens. The U.S. Congress is moving forward on legislation that would condition all aid to Pakistan on its meeting certain counterterrorism benchmarks. The practice of conditioning security aid to Pakistan is long overdue. The Heritage Foundation has supported such an approach for the past three years.
- List the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization. While this may have little practical effect in terms of cutting funding to the organization, it sends a clear signal that the U.S. does not tolerate attacks on its citizens. Secretary of State Clinton admitted in congressional testimony in October 2011 that the Haqqani network conducted an attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul just weeks after U.S. officials met with a Haqqani interlocutor.
- Step up drone strikes on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The increased tempo in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas has severely downgraded the al-Qaeda leadership and disrupted its ability to attack the U.S. Washington should pursue the same kind of aggressive drone campaign against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan.
- Establish a congressional commission to investigate Pakistan's role in Afghanistan. The public contradictions within the Obama Administration regarding the extent to which Pakistan supports U.S. enemies in the region is leading to speculation that the Administration is reluctant to rock the boat with Pakistan in the middle of a drawdown of forces from Afghanistan and with a U.S. presidential election only a year away. This in turn is weakening the U.S. position in the region and emboldening Pakistan’s military leadership. A bipartisan panel would help to bring clarity to U.S. policy toward Pakistan.
- Prioritize finding alternative routes to cope with a disruption or even cutoff in supply routes through Pakistan. The U.S. has been able to increase the amount of supplies it sends through the Northern Distribution Network over the past five years, and it should prioritize building up this network further. A cutoff in the supply chain running through Pakistan would gravely affect the U.S. ability to sustain military missions in Afghanistan.
- Do not withdraw too quickly from Afghanistan, and ensure that people in the region know that the U.S. will remain engaged there diplomatically, financially, and militarily even after 2014. The major reason Pakistan continues to support the Haqqani network (and other Taliban proxies) is the belief that the U.S. will withdraw from Afghanistan before the situation is stable and that the Haqqanis provide the best chance to secure Pakistan’s interests in the country. Allowing the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to be driven by conditions on the ground would help to reassure the Pakistanis that the U.S. is committed to finishing the job in Afghanistan.
- Remain open but clear-eyed on the issue of Afghan reconciliation. The goal of Afghan peace talks should be to split the Taliban from al-Qaeda and encourage them to become part of the political process, not to allow them to dominate power at the expense of other ethnic groups and progress made for the people of Afghanistan over the past 10 years. The assassination of the Head of the High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September was a major setback to reconciliation talks. The U.S. must be realistic about the threat that Taliban extremists and their al-Qaeda allies pose and not pin false hopes on a political reconciliation process merely to justify a troop withdrawal. Political reconciliation is desirable but only if it contributes to the goal of ensuring that Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for global terrorists.
- Encourage Indo–Pakistani dialogue. The U.S. should fully support the resumption of dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi but should also avoid seeking any kind of mediation role. Pakistan and India made strong progress in peace talks from 2004–2007, and Washington should encourage them to return to the terms of those talks. The U.S. should not seek to restrict India’s diplomatic and economic involvement in Afghanistan to appease Pakistan. India has an important role to play in encouraging democratic institution-building and economic development and shares the U.S. strategic objective of preventing global terrorists from re-establishing a safe haven in the country.
Facts & Figures
- The U.S. has provided $22 billion in aid to Pakistan over the past decade, two-thirds of which was military assistance.
- The Kerry–Lugar–Berman bill passed in October 2009 was aimed at increasing U.S. economic aid to Pakistan and providing greater support to the civilian authorities by committing $1.5 billion in economic aid annually over a five-year period. Two years later, the civilian government remains weak and beholden to the military, and anti-U.S. sentiment is rife.
- Pakistan is expanding and improving its nuclear arsenal more rapidly than any other country. It is estimated to have about 100 warheads and has already produced sufficient fissile material to manufacture an additional 100. At its current rate of production, Islamabad could soon become the fourth-largest nuclear power behind Russia, the United States, and China.
- Nearly 30,000 Pakistani civilians and security forces have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past decade. These are costs that Pakistan is now bearing partly because of its years of support, training, and financing of terrorist groups that it hoped would stay focused on India.
- The U.S. and India have completed defense deals worth about $6 billion in the past few years. The U.S. and Indian militaries hold regular exercises across all services. In 2011, there were 56 cooperative events across all services—more than India conducted with any other country.
Selected Additional Resources
- Lisa Curtis, “After bin Laden: Do Not Retreat from Afghanistan,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3259, May 17, 2011.
- Lisa Curtis and Dean Cheng, “The China Challenge: A Strategic Vision for U.S.–China Relations,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2583, July 28, 2011.
- Lisa Curtis and Sally McNamara, “Afghanistan: Time for Military Strategy to Capitalize on Political Gains,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2530, March 15, 2011.
- Heritage Foundation Counterterrorism Task Force, “A Counterterrorism Strategy for the ‘Next Wave,’” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. SR-98, August 24, 2011.
- Admiral Michael Mullen, “Statement of Admiral Michael Mullen. U.S. Navy, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Afghanistan and Iraq,” September 22, 2011.
Heritage Experts on South Asia