At stake in South Asia are some of America’s most 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 (potentially nuclear) 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. America needs to maintain diplomatic, economic, and military engagement in South Asia to protect these core national security interests.
Afghanistan. There are currently around 13,200 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan as part of Operation Resolute Support to train and advise the Afghan forces. NATO formally ended combat operations in December 2014, but coalition forces regularly conduct airstrikes in support of the Afghan forces, and American Special Operations Forces continue to carry out raids on Taliban and al-Qaeda hideouts.
President Obama’s decision to extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016 is welcome news, but he needs to drop all arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal. Despite his earlier pledge to withdraw all U.S. forces, except those necessary to protect the U.S. embassy, by the end of 2016, Obama announced in October 2015 that a force level of 5,500 U.S. troops will remain in the country when he departs office in January 2017. The 9,800 U.S. troops currently deployed in Afghanistan will now remain in the country through most of 2016.
The fall of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz to the Taliban in September 2015 demonstrates that the Afghan security forces continue to need U.S. and NATO support in the form of air strikes, intelligence, training, and battlefield advice. Afghan forces were able to regain control of Kunduz, but other key urban areas remain under threat from the Taliban. Also contributing to Obama’s decision to extend the U.S. troop presence was growing concern among U.S. policymakers about the potential for a security meltdown in Afghanistan along the lines of what Iraq experienced in 2014. Moreover, there are increasing signs of ISIS gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, particularly in the eastern province of Nangarhar, further complicating the terrorist landscape and contributing to instability.
Al-Qaeda and Associated Terrorist Groups. The U.S. has made strides against the al-Qaeda core leadership through an aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. However, the nature of the threat is evolving and 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 leadership 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. The Pakistani military’s continued support to terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), which conducted the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the Haqqani Network, which regularly conducts attacks in Afghanistan, undermine U.S. national security interests.
U.S.–Pakistan Relations. The U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan has stabilized somewhat following a series of shocks in 2011–2012, including the U.S. unilateral raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif made separate visits to Washington in the fall of 2015, during which leaders of the two countries expressed commitment to an enduring partnership. The U.S. continues to provide around $1.5 billion in military and economic assistance to Pakistan on an annual basis. For the first time, however, the Obama Administration is set to follow through on legislative conditions on aid to Pakistan by withholding $300 million in Coalition Support Funding due to Pakistan’s failure to crack down on the Haqqani Network.
Despite strong U.S. prodding, the Pakistan government has refused to take action against the Haqqani Network, which was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. State Department in September 2012—one year after it conducted a major attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Pakistan’s reluctance to crack down on the Taliban leadership based on its territory and its ambivalence toward pushing the group toward dialogue is feeding conflict in the region. Unless Pakistan agrees to adopt more consistent and comprehensive counterterrorism policies and cuts all ties to extremist groups like the Haqqani Network and LeT, Washington needs to continue to reduce military aid to Islamabad.
President Obama’s wavering commitment to Afghanistan and his aggressive timelines for withdrawal have contributed to Pakistan’s policy of maintaining ties to terrorist groups. 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. While President Obama’s recent announcement to extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016 is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. The U.S. should drop all arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal and maintain the current level of troops in the country (9,800) as long as conditions merit it.
Pakistan has intensified its crackdown on the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or Pakistani Taliban) over the past eighteen months. The Pakistani military launched operations against TTP hide-outs in North Waziristan in mid-June 2014, and the parliament passed a National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism in January 2015, shortly after TTP terrorists attacked a military school in Peshawar, killing 145, mostly children. The TTP has conducted numerous attacks, resulting in thousands of Pakistani casualties, since the group was formed in 2007. There are tentative signs that Pakistan’s recent crackdown on the TTP has reduced the group’s ability to attack the Pakistani state.
Despite Pakistan’s crackdown on the TTP, there are no signs that Pakistan is reining in the LeT. Indeed in April 2015, Pakistan released on bail the LeT mastermind behind the Mumbai attacks, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi. The day before Lakhvi’s release, the U.S. had announced the approval of nearly $1 billion in U.S. military sales to Pakistan.
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 is now estimated at 120 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 National Security Agency 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.
The Obama Administration is reportedly considering a deal with Pakistan that would put limits on its nuclear weapons program in exchange for Pakistan becoming a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and thus gaining increased access to civilian nuclear technology and material. Such a step would lend international legitimacy to Pakistan’s nuclear program, putting it on par with India, which received a civil nuclear waiver from the NSG in 2008. Neither Pakistan nor India has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Pursuing a nuclear deal with Pakistan before it has fully cracked down on terrorist groups on its soil would be a mistake. Separating Pakistan’s approach to terrorism from its handling of its nuclear assets is not sound policy when considering fundamental U.S. national security interests in South Asia, including preventing an Indo–Pakistani military conflict that could become nuclear, and ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stay safe and secure and out of the hands of terrorists. Many argue that Pakistan continues to support terrorist proxies in the region under the protection of its “nuclear umbrella” in order to keep both Afghanistan and India off balance. A U.S.–Pakistan nuclear deal would lend credibility to this dangerous and irresponsible strategy.
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 and the cause of two major wars (in 1948 and in 1965) as well as the Kargil border conflict in 1999. In recent years, however, friction over Afghanistan has also contributed to their mutual hostility. Indo–Pakistani tensions have increased following the May 2014 election of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi, who has adopted a tougher stance on terrorism. Fire exchange along the Line of Control that divides Kashmir has escalated over the past year, killing dozens of Indian and Pakistani soldiers and civilians. Talks planned for August 2015 between the two countries’ national security advisers were called off when the two sides could not agree on the agenda of the talks. India wants talks to focus on containing terrorism in the region, while Pakistan insists that they engage on the decades-old dispute over Kashmir. 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.
With terrorist groups operating relatively freely in Pakistan and maintaining links to the country’s military and intelligence services, the risk of the two countries climbing the military escalation ladder and eventually engaging in all-out conflict is relatively high. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability appears to have acted as a deterrent against Indian military escalation during both the 2001–2002 military crisis and following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but the current BJP-led government in India would be under great pressure to react strongly in the face of a terrorist provocation. Pakistan’s recent focus on incorporating tactical nuclear weapons into its warfighting doctrine has also raised concern that if conflict does break out, there is now a higher risk of nuclear exchange.
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.
Washington and New Delhi raised the level of their trilateral dialogue with Tokyo and the three nations conducted joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal in October 2015, sending Beijing a clear message about their resolve to maintain free and open seaways. The scope of future Indo–U.S. strategic and security cooperation, however, will depend to a large extent on the degree to which the U.S. shows sensitivity toward Indian core security concerns, which revolve mainly around its archrival, Pakistan. The Obama Administration’s discussion of a possible civil nuclear deal with Pakistan has revived Indian suspicions of U.S. strategic intentions in the region and could lead India to recoil on its outreach to the U.S., if such a deal were actually implemented.
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. Heritage Foundation analysts have long supported conditioning military aid to Pakistan; the U.S. plans to withhold $300 million in CSF funding due to Pakistan’s failure to crack down on the Haqqani Network. The U.S. can no longer skirt around the fact that Pakistani support to some terrorist groups leads to American deaths and undermines critical U.S. national security interests.
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.
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.
Stay Engaged in Afghanistan. The U.S. should drop all arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal from Afghanistan and commit to keeping in place the number of U.S. troops currently stationed there as long as conditions merit it. The U.S. should maintain deep diplomatic and economic engagement with Afghanistan and keep a sufficient residual U.S. force presence to train, advise, and support Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations. This U.S. policy for Afghanistan would advance four 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; (3) ensure ISIS does not develop a foothold in the region; and (4) strengthen the U.S. relationship with India.
Remain Open but Shrewd 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 14 years. The U.S. should 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 in 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 reestablishing a safe haven in the country.
Initiate a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Involving the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. The “Quad” concept, originally mooted eight years ago but shelved when the Chinese objected, has taken on greater significance in the wake of recent Chinese land reclamation and construction activity in the South China Sea. Japan and Australia have each signaled their concern about China’s assertive behavior, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown willingness to work more closely with the U.S. in the Asia–Pacific. For instance, the U.S. and India signed a landmark agreement in January 2015, “The Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region,” affirming their commitment to safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. The time is ripe for the U.S. to take the lead in operationalizing the Quad.
Facts and Figures
- Two-thirds of the $27 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan over the past decade has been military assistance, including $13 billion in Coalition Support Funds (CSF—reimbursements to Pakistan’s military for its counterterrorism operations along the Afghan border). 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 CSF payments to Pakistan in December 2012 and reinstated other military aid programs in October 2013 when Prime Minister Sharif visited President Obama.
- The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorized up to $1 billion in CSF funding for Pakistan and the U.S. transferred $336 million of this amount in July 2015. However, in August 2015, the U.S. signaled it was set to withhold $300 million in CSF due to Pakistan’s failure to crack down on the Haqqani Network.
- Pakistan is expanding and improving its nuclear arsenal more rapidly than any other country. It is estimated to have about 120 warheads and is on track to possess the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile (behind the U.S. and Russia) within a decade.
- Nearly 35,000 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 over $10 billion in the past eight years. The U.S. and Indian militaries hold regular exercises across all services, including an annual trilateral naval exercise in the Indian Ocean with Japan.
Selected Additional Resources
James Carafano, “Obama Makes the Right Call to Tough It Out in Afghanistan,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, October 15, 2015.
Lisa Curtis, “Bringing Pakistan into the Counterterrorism, not Nuclear, Mainstream,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4473, October 20, 2015.
Lisa Curtis, “Finally, U.S. Set to Block Aid to Pakistan for Failing to Crack Down on Terrorist Group,” The Daily Signal, August 21, 2015.
Lisa Curtis, “U.S. Engagement Required: Afghanistan Must Avoid Iraq-Style Breakdown,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3038, July 23, 2015.
Walter Lohman, “Responding to China’s Rise: Could a ‘Quad’ Approach Help?” Heritage Foundation Commentary, June 26, 2015.