After languishing for five decades as a region of only marginal importance to the United States, South Asia became a major area of interest for U.S. defense planners after 9/11. The cause of this turnabout was a need for cooperation with India and Pakistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. But several subsequent developments, some quite disturbing, ensure that South Asia will remain critical for years to come. They include the presence of the Taliban and al Qaeda militants in Pakistan and possibly Kashmir, anti-American and anti-national terrorism in both nations, turmoil in the disputed state of Kashmir, and a potential for nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. On a more positive note, Washington has improved its political and military relationships with New Delhi and Islamabad, which has raised expectations.
Because of rivalry between India and Pakistan, which began with their independence from Britain in 1947, the United States has never been able to maintain close relations with both nations simultaneously. India drifted between nonalignment and an outright alliance with the Soviet Union, while Pakistan was a staunch American ally in the fight against communist expansion. When the United States moved closer to India after the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962 and again during the 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet empire, its relations with Pakistan waned. Today the challenge is translating increased influence in both New Delhi and Islamabad into tangible results in the war on terrorism, stabilizing Indo-Pak competition, and promoting other American interests throughout the region.
The campaign to deny Afghanistan as a haven for terrorists and crush the al Qaeda network had a dramatic impact on Pakistan, the closest foreign partner of the Taliban. Pakistan had helped consolidate their power during the 1990s. Viewing the Taliban as a friendly if fanatical regime that could stabilize unruly tribes while providing strategic depth, Islamabad was loathe to see a return to insecurity on its western flank. But faced by intense pressure from Washington, President Pervez Musharraf agreed to break ties with the Taliban, provide basing and overflight for coalition forces, deploy troops along the Afghan border, and share intelligence on terrorist groups. In announcing this controversial policy reversal on September 19, 2001, Musharraf stated that taking any other course would risk unbearable losses for Pakistan by threatening its economy, long-term interests in Kashmir, and strategic capabilities.
Though most mainstream Pakistani political parties upheld the decision to aid the coalition, Islamic factions responded in outrage. Some two dozen religious parties joined in the Pak-Afghan Defense Council to oust Musharraf. Strikes were called, several people were killed, and extremists went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Yet these actions did not incite the nation against the government or persuade the government to reverse its decision on Afghanistan.
The president faced another threat from within his military government. Believing that he had sold out to Washington, hardline officers in the army and intelligence service were reluctant to disengage from Afghanistan and provided incomplete or misleading information. Musharraf faced being ousted by pro-Taliban officers who were instrumental in the coup that brought him to power and held senior posts in the armed forces and intelligence service. He moved to counter this threat, sacking the intelligence chief and deputy chief of the army staff, changing commanders in Quetta and Peshawar, and demoting other senior officers associated with the Taliban.
The Bush administration has gone to great lengths to support the efforts to maintain internal stability and implement political and economic reforms in Pakistan while assisting coalition forces. Washington has been criticized at the same time for not providing sufficient assistance to Pakistan for its crippled economy and military, which is half the size of the Indian armed forces. …