Talking Points

  • Under current circumstances, the nearest-term critical threats to American interests in Asia reside in South Asia.
  • The U.S. must maintain its engagement in South Asia to protect core national security interests, including prevention of attacks on the U.S. homeland.
  • President Obama’s aggressive withdrawal from Afghanistan and reluctance to leave a substantial residual force presence post-2014 are contributing to Pakistan’s unwillingness to take action against terrorists.
  • Pakistan has one of the fastest-growing nuclear weapons arsenals in the world. Its stockpile now exceeds 100 war-heads and is vulnerable to international terrorists.
  • Both the war on terrorism in South Asia and the growing strategic challenge presented by a rising China should mean an increase in cooperation across the board between the U.S. and India.

The Issue

“Asia” is a vast area of foreign policy focus. East Asia and the Pacific is where the U.S. has its deepest history of involvement and its formal treaty alliances: 80,000 troops and the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet are housed there to keep the peace. South Asia, however, partly due to the half-hearted commitment to security needs there by the Obama Administration, may pose the greater physical threat to global security, American interests, and American lives.

At stake in South Asia are some of America’s vital national security interests, 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. A critical part of America’s overall Asia policy must be to maintain its diplomatic, economic, and military engagement in South Asia to protect these core national security interests.

Battling al-Qaeda. The U.S. has made strides against the al-Qaeda core leadership in the past two years by enhancing its intelligence operations inside Pakistan and through sustained drone missile strikes against terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal border areas. The nature of the global terrorist threat is evolving in that al-Qaeda affiliates, dispersed throughout the Middle East and North Africa, are strengthening and operating with increasing effectiveness despite a lack of centralized command and control from al-Qaeda leaders based in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the global terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan remains a core U.S. national security concern as a multitude of different extremist groups with varying degrees of ties to al-Qaeda operate in and from Pakistan. While the U.S. has made progress against al-Qaeda’s core leadership base in Pakistan, 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 is beginning to stabilize following a series of shocks over the past couple of years, including the U.S. unilateral raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011; an attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul by the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network in September 2011; and an accidental NATO strike on Pakistani forces stationed along the border with Afghanistan in November 2011 that led Pakistan to shut down NATO supply lines into Afghanistan for six months. The lines were fully reopened and the U.S. reinstated coalition support funding for Pakistan in December 2012. Since then, the U.S. and Pakistan have made an effort to revive ties, culminating in a visit to Washington in October by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the full resumption of U.S. economic and military aid in the amount of $1.6 billion.

Although former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress that the Administration did 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 Pakistan’s military and intelligence links with violent Islamist groups over the past 20 years that ultimately allowed the world’s most wanted terrorist to hide under the nose of Pakistan’s military for six years.

Despite strong U.S. prodding, the Pakistan government has refused to take action against the Haqqani Network, which was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department in September 2012—one year after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. 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 adopt more consistent and comprehensive counterterrorism policies and cuts all ties to extremist groups like the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba (the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 170 people, including six Americans), Washington must consider cutting military aid to Islamabad.

Pakistani leaders assess that U.S. forces will depart the region before Afghanistan is stabilized and thus calculate that continuing support for the Taliban and Haqqani Network constitutes their best chance to counter Indian regional influence. Regrettably, President Obama’s aggressive withdrawal strategy and reluctance to leave a substantial residual force presence post-2014 only reinforce their view.

Afghanistan. While the U.S. should not have an unlimited, open-ended commitment in Afghanistan, the U.S. cannot withdraw precipitously. The U.S. will need to have for an appropriate period (a) deep diplomatic and economic engagement with Afghanistan and (b) sufficient residual U.S. forces to train, advise, and support Afghan counterterrorism forces. Although the focus of U.S. forces in Afghanistan no longer will be combat operations after 2014, the U.S. should retain the right to use its residual forces to defend American interests from attack. America cannot tolerate the reestablishment of Afghanistan as an operating base for terrorist groups.

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. Pakistan has one of the world’s fastest-growing nuclear weapons arsenals, and its stockpile now exceeds 100 warheads. It also has adopted a military doctrine that emphasizes the use of short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to counter India’s conventional military superiority. Documents released illegally by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden highlighted the U.S. intelligence community’s concern about the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear program to global terrorists. The realization that Osama bin Laden resided for six years within a half-mile of the Pakistan military’s premier defense academy has increased fear within the U.S. intelligence and policymaking community that al-Qaeda could eventually gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

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. Official bilateral dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi resumed in February 2011, but talks have been stalled by increasing cease-fire violations by both militaries along the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir. In August, for example, a series of firing incidents along the LoC killed several Indian and Pakistani troops and almost derailed a planned meeting between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers. The leaders followed through with their meeting on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly in late September but without achieving any concrete forward movement. Pakistan has stalled on a pledge 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.

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, not only in its immediate South Asian neighborhood, but also in East Asia. India is strengthening its naval presence in the Indian Ocean region and enhancing its political and economic ties beyond and into the Pacific. 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.


  1. 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 people, including six American citizens. The Heritage Foundation has long supported conditioning military aid to Pakistan. The U.S. State Department exercised its national security waiver authority with regard to counterterrorism conditions on military aid to Pakistan in early 2013, but full resumption of military aid to Pakistan without requiring Islamabad to crack down on groups like the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba sends a signal that the U.S. will overlook Pakistani support to militants so long as Pakistan occasionally cooperates on al-Qaeda targets.
  2. Continue drone strikes, including strikes on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas have 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.
  3. 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. 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.
  4. Finish the Job in Afghanistan. While the U.S. should not have an unlimited, open-ended commitment in Afghanistan, the U.S. cannot withdraw precipitously. The U.S. will need to have for an appropriate period its deep diplomatic and economic engagement with Afghanistan and will need to have sufficient residual U.S. forces to train, advise, and support Afghan counterterrorism forces. This U.S. policy for Afghanistan would advance three important U.S. interests in the region: (1) prevent reestablishment of Afghanistan as an operating base for terrorism, (2) encourage neighboring Pakistan to take on the organized terrorist groups within its borders, of particular concern because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and (3) strengthen the U.S. relationship with India, a country one-third the size of the U.S. with four times the population that would welcome reduced tensions with countries in the region.
  5. 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 exercise dominant power at the expense of other ethnic groups and progress made for the people of Afghanistan over the past 12 years. 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.
  6. 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

  • Two-thirds of the $25 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan over the past decade has been military assistance. The U.S. suspended military assistance to Pakistan in 2011 following increased tensions and Pakistan’s closing down of NATO supply lines. The U.S. resumed coalition support fund payments to Pakistan in December 2012 and rein-stated other military aid programs in October 2013 when Prime Minister Sharif visited President Obama.
  • 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.
  • 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 world’s fourth-largest nuclear power behind Rus-sia, 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 $9 billion in the past six years. The U.S. and Indian militaries hold regular exercises across all services.

Selected Additional Resources

Heritage Experts on Asia

  • Luke Coffey

    Margaret Thatcher Fellow

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Research Fellow

To talk to one of our experts, please contact us by phone at 202-608-1515 or by email.