South Asia

The Issue

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 secured 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.


There are currently around 13,400 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan as part of Operation Resolute Support, whose mission is to train, advise, and assist the Afghan forces. NATO formally ended combat operations in December 2014, but coalition forces regularly conduct air strikes in support of the Afghan forces, and American special operations forces continue to carry out raids on Taliban and al-Qaeda hideouts.

On August 21, 2017, President Trump recommitted America to Afghanistan and refined its mission to “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” Reports indicate that he has given the Pentagon authority to send between 3,000 and 5,000 additional U.S. troops to help accomplish this.

Afghan security forces continue to need U.S. and NATO support in the form of air strikes, intelligence operations, training, and battlefield advice. Afghan forces have been able to regain control of key territory, but many areas remain under threat from the Taliban. An American pullout could have resulted in 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, 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 in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the global terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan remains a primary 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 of terrorist groups, such as 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.


The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has stabilized somewhat after a series of shocks in 2011 and 2012, including the unilateral U.S. 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 $1.2 billion in military and economic assistance to Pakistan every year.

Despite strong U.S. prodding, the Pakistani 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 Afghan 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, the Afghan Taliban, and LeT, U.S.–Pakistan relations will be at risk.

The previous U.S. Administration’s wavering commitment to Afghanistan and its ultimately aborted effort to withdraw U.S. troops contributed to Pakistan’s policy of maintaining ties to terrorist groups. Pakistani leaders assessed that U.S. forces will depart the region before Afghanistan is stabilized, and thus calculated that continuing support for the Taliban and Haqqani Network constitutes their best chance for countering Indian regional influence. While President Obama’s announcement to extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016 was a step in the right direction, it did not go far enough.

Pakistan has intensified its crackdown on Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or Pakistani Taliban). The Pakistani military launched operations against TTP hideouts 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. 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 TTP has reduced the group’s ability to attack the Pakistani state.

With regard to LeT, in January 2017, its founder and leader of its political arm, Hafiz Saeed, was placed under house arrest by Pakistan’s state of Punjab. Other signs of action by Pakistan have not been encouraging. The LeT mastermind behind the Mumbai attacks, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, has remained free on bail since April 2015. The day before Lakhvi’s initial 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.

There is concern that Islamist extremist groups with links to the Pakistani security establishment could exploit those links to gain access to nuclear weapons technology, facilities, or materials. The realization that Osama bin Laden lived for six years within a half-mile of Pakistan’s premier defense academy has fueled concern that al-Qaeda can operate relatively freely in parts of Pakistan and might eventually gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Security Index ranks 24 countries with “one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials” for their susceptibility to theft. Pakistan’s weapons-grade materials are the third-least secure in the world. In NTI’s broader survey of 44 countries with nuclear power and related facilities, Pakistan ranks sixth-least secure against sabotage.

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.

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. 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 than his predecessor. Exchanges of fire along the Line of Control that divides Kashmir has escalated over the past few years, killing dozens of Indian and Pakistani soldiers and civilians. India wants talks to focus on containing terrorism in the region, while Pakistan insists that the two countries 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 major 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.


The U.S. has a fundamental interest in developing a strategic partnership with a rising democratic 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 Japan became a permanent partner in annual joint naval exercises among the three in 2015, sending a clear message about the Japanese 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.


Condition Aid to Pakistan on Its Cracking Down on Terrorist Groups that Are 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 involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed nearly 170 people, including six Americans. The U.S. can no longer skirt the fact that Pakistani support for some terrorist groups leads to American deaths and undermines critical U.S. national security interests.

Establish a Congressional Commission to Investigate Pakistan’s Role in Afghanistan. The ever-present contradictions in U.S. policy regarding Pakistan’s support for U.S. enemies undermines the U.S. position in the region and emboldens Pakistan’s military leadership. It is also a barrier to a closer relationship with India. A bipartisan panel would help to bring clarity to U.S. policy toward Pakistan.

Remain Engaged in Afghanistan. The U.S. should keep in place the number of U.S. troops required to stabilize the situation and enable Afghan forces to manage the insurgency themselves. 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 re-establishment 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 that ISIS does not develop a foothold in the region; and (4) strengthen the U.S. relationship with India.

Facts and Figures

FACT: While U.S. assistance to Pakistan is necessary to help it fight terrorism and maintain U.S. access to its military establishment, it should be conditional on the vigor of Pakistan’s effort to defeat terrorism.

  • Pakistan has long played a double game with regard to terrorist groups operating along its border with Afghanistan. It provides a safe haven and support to some of them. It also supports groups that attack India.
  • In 2016, for the first time, the U.S. withheld $300 million in Coalition Support Funds (CSF)—reimbursements to Pakistan’s military for its counterterrorism operations along the Afghan border) for Pakistan’s failure to crack down on terrorist groups. Congress also blocked U.S. government funding for the transfer of F-16s for the same reason.
  • Since 2015 Congress has included language in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that prohibits a portion of military reimbursement payments for Pakistan from falling under presidential waiver authority.
  • Two-thirds of the more than $30 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan since 2002 has consisted of military assistance, including $14.5 billion in CSF.
  • The 2017 NDAA authorizes up to $1.1 billion in CSF funding for Pakistan, and the U.S. transferred $350 million of this amount in March 2017.
  • 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.

FACT: The security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is a critical national interest of the U.S.

  • 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.
  • The U.S. requires a relationship with Pakistan in order to keep tabs on the security of its nuclear arsenal, offer it advice on best practices, and cooperate on counter-proliferation. This will be very difficult without some level of assistance for Pakistan.

Selected Additional Resources

James Jay Carafano, “Obama Makes the Right Call to Tough It Out in Afghanistan,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, October 15, 2015.

Luke Coffey, “Afghanistan Has Been America’s Longest War. Here’s What Success Will Look Like,” The Daily Signal, June 3, 2017.

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 an Iraq-Style Breakdown,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3038, July 23, 2015.

Husain Haqqani and Lisa Curtis, “A New U.S. Approach to Pakistan; Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties,” Hudson Institute, February 6, 2017.

Walter Lohman, “Responding to China’s Rise: Could a ‘Quad’ Approach Help?” Heritage Foundation Commentary, June 26, 2015.