“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.
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