A Distant Region Takes Center Stage: Pulling Up the Roots of Terrorism in South Asia

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

June 1, 2002

Once Washington had established the linkage between the attacks of September 11 and Afghanistan, it confronted a cascading series of tasks in South Asia, each generating more and more demands on American military and diplomatic resources. To strike back at al Qaeda, which had sent the hijackers on their deadly mission, the United States had to confront the Taliban. Any action against al Qaeda or the Taliban required the assistance of Pakistan, inevitably entangling the United States in the complex India-Pakistan dispute. Nearly a year after the terrorist attacks, some of the original American objectives in South Asia have been achieved, some remain in doubt, and new problems have arisen, challenging a wide range of American political and strategic interests.

Afghanistan: Total War in a Small Place

Afghanistan had no formal relations with Washington, and the Taliban government not only tolerated al Qaeda but was militarily and financially dependent on it. After one last effort to split the Taliban from its “guest” terrorists, the Bush administration launched a concerted war against both al Qaeda and the Taliban regime.

Washington had two urgent aims. The first was an all-out war against al Qaeda, one aimed at obliterating it as an organization and killing, capturing, and punishing its top leadership and as many of its cadres as could be located. The Bush administration invoked the language of total war against an implacable and unscrupulous enemy, and the war against al Qaeda escalated to a war against “international terrorism.” The term international terrorism was originally defined as terrorism directed against the United States, but ultimately included any group that America identified as “terrorist,” though no precise definition of terrorism has yet been offered.

This phase of the war appears to have gone well. Although no reliable figures exist either on casualties or on the total number of al Qaeda fighters, the organization’s effectiveness in Afghanistan has been reduced to guerrilla operations. Although the United States gathered considerable information about al Qaeda’s global operations, only a few of the top leaders have been captured or killed, and the overall organization may be able to mount large-scale terrorist attacks.

The war brought some military innovations, the most impressive of which seems to be the skillful combination of special forces and precision-guided munitions delivered by long-range bombers flying from the United States and aircraft based in nearby countries (including Pakistan). American forces also worked closely with Afghan irregulars in search-and-destroy missions. No independent cost-benefit analysis of the war’s tactics exists, however, and in the case of joint U.S.-Afghan operations, on several occasions Afghan forces either melted away or provided misinformation.

The way the war was fought ensured that few Americans and few allies would be killed, a strategy that has led to sharp criticism in Pakistan and elsewhere. Americans are judged to be fighting an aloof, high-technology war, wounding and killing hundreds if not thousands of Afghans while taking few losses themselves. This perception could yet haunt the United States, still viewed in much of the non-Western world as a soft country.

Regarding the Taliban and Afghanistan, American goals were more limited. The Taliban was to be removed from power and replaced with a regime that would no longer allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorist groups. The Taliban’s demise was to serve as a lesson to other countries that might harbor terrorist groups, and Afghanistan itself was to be turned into a “normal” state, with a moderate, representative government.

Unsurprisingly, given Afghanistan’s war-torn society, achieving this goal has been problematic.

From the first days the interim government assumed office, its weakness was evident—not only from the near-absence of government and administrative capabilities, but also from the presence of powerful “warlords” in many provinces and the remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban, who pose a security threat within Afghanistan. Although the United Nations, Afghanistan’s interim government itself, and others called for U.S. assistance, only in late March did Washington conclude that Afghanistan could not build a state without addressing the security problem. American Special Forces were assigned the task of training Afghan military units, but no significant security infrastructure is on the drawing boards.

Further hindering the interim government’s authority is Washington’s unwillingness to allow the International Security Assistance Force to operate beyond Kabul. Despite the willingness of several nations to provide troops for the international force, Washington will not provide backup, and it is evident that the Pentagon does not want to become tied down in Afghanistan any longer than necessary.

The U.S. footdragging could imperil the interim government headed by Mohammed Karzai and whatever successor government follows it. A Loya Jirga, or tribal council, will convene in mid-June to approve writing a new constitution and developing procedures to select a permanent government, but its work will not be done until December 2003. Until then Afghanistan will be particularly vulnerable, and it must have enough military muscle to contain the truculent warlords, who are already making side-deals with various relief and reconstruction agencies. Without its own security force—or increased international military support—the Kabul government could lose its credibility, and Afghanistan could once again fall under the influence of outside powers and forces, including remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban.


Islamabad was a major supporter of the Taliban and of terrorists operating in Kashmir, both of which groups it regarded as freedom fighters. The Afghan and Kashmir terrorist operations strengthened domestic Islamic radicals, who were visibly and publicly defiant of Islamabad, even after the military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power as president of Pakistan in 1999. Before September 11 Washington’s chief interest in Pakistan was to criticize its nuclear program and its military adventurism and support for the Taliban.

Recognizing that Islamabad’s cooperation would be vital to any operation in Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned to Pakistan within a day of the attacks, offering both carrots and sticks.

Washington made numerous demands of Islamabad, including military and intelligence cooperation, terminating the flow of volunteers and fuel supplies to Afghanistan, and support for removing the Taliban. It also asked Pakistan to publicly condemn the attacks and curb all domestic expressions of support for terrorism.

President Musharraf agreed to these requests immediately. He had little choice: on the verge of bankruptcy, Pakistan was vulnerable to American economic pressure, and India had already offered to help the United States. The warm India-U.S. relationship had little impact on the war in Afghanistan but did give the United States tremendous leverage over Pakistan, because it made credible the implicit threat that if Pakistan did not cooperate with Washington, then the United States might side with India against Pakistan on the Kashmir and other issues.

Under Musharraf’s leadership, Pakistan provided a big boost to the war effort. Pakistan’s territory was used by American and allied forces, and Musharraf retired or transferred many of the hard-line military officers who were the Taliban’s strongest supporters. Musharraf summarized Pakistan’s new, liberal policies in a dramatic speech to the Pakistani people on January 12. If he were to implement even a few of his stated goals, then it could be said that Pakistan had turned a corner and was no longer a failing state.

In return for Pakistan’s cooperation, Washington quickly lifted nuclear sanctions, suspended the “democracy” sanctions imposed after the 1999 coup, and put together a package of nearly $1 billion in debt relief. But the administration was unable to persuade Congress to increase Pakistan’s textile quota substantially, and resentment simmered in Islamabad over Washington’s inability to help Pakistan’s leading export industry and also over what it saw as the Bush administration’s desire to keep Pakistan on a short tether.

The United States and Pakistan now have a limited strategic partnership, but each remains wary of the other. Pakistan hoped that Washington would become more active on the Kashmir dispute, but America was in no mood to endanger its new relationship with New Delhi. Islamabad denied Washington’s request for permission to pursue Taliban and al Qaeda forces operating on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Despite his florid rhetoric, Musharraf is unwilling (or unable) to crack down on Pakistan’s home-grown Islamic radicals. Several Pakistani extremists were released from jail, others are no longer under house arrest, and the highly publicized murders of Americans and foreigners reveals how little control Musharraf’s government has over radical elements in Pakistan.

To Washington’s frustration, Pakistan remains fixated on Kashmir, a dispute in which American officials have been unwilling to play a more active role. Nor has the United States done more than offer polite criticism of a recent massive Indian military buildup, which, some evidence suggests, it regards as an additional way of applying pressure on Islamabad.

Although support for Musharraf may be tepid in Washington, it is weaker still in Pakistan. Musharraf has tried to walk the narrow line between Islamic radicals and moderates, but he lacks charisma, popular support, and an efficient civilian institutional structure. His power base is in the army, but a series of large-scale public protests could make him quite dispensable as far as his colleagues are concerned.

A critical test of the new U.S.-Pakistan relationship could come in October, when Pakistan is scheduled to hold its first national election in many years. Will Washington endorse the results of a rigged or mismanaged election? Will American relations with Pakistan be determined largely by that country’s willingness to support the war on terrorism? The most difficult situation for the United States would be one in which Pakistan’s cooperation in rounding up terrorists and political extremists was balanced by renewed meddling in Afghanistan or blatant support for violent forces in Kashmir and India.

The Indian Connection

India has been the regional “sore winner.” Although it took no joy in seeing America restore its relationship with Pakistan after the September 11 attacks, the renewed link ultimately turned to New Delhi’s advantage. Indian leaders looked on with concern as the United States came to Islamabad’s rescue with large loans and the removal of sanctions, but India benefited because Washington lifted similar sanctions on India. The United States also exerted heavy pressure on Islamabad to cease its support for cross-border movement from Pakistan to Kashmir and pressed Islamabad to crack down on Islamic radicals—many of whom were targeting India. Further, Indian-American military cooperation increased dramatically, and Washington accelerated the pace of rapprochement between the two once-estranged democracies. India and the United States also revived earlier plans for closer defense cooperation, and big U.S. military sales to India may be in the offing.

During the last months of 2001, India was directly affected by terrorism, most sensationally by a December 12 attack on the Indian parliament. Soon thereafter India announced a total military mobilization, and for several months the India-Pakistan border was in crisis. Washington urged calm and restraint, but may have been secretly pleased at the added pressure on Pakistan. India was practicing a form of diplomatic compellence, threatening a wider war to get Pakistan to end its support for cross-border terrorism and to return 20 individuals to India, where they were wanted on various charges.


The way in which the “war on terrorism” has been fought in South Asia offers several important lessons.

In an era of globalization, any region can suddenly become salient to American interests. Afghanistan and Pakistan had been dismissed by American policymakers as irrelevant, yet they took center stage in 2001-02. Washington will have to remain engaged in both countries to ensure that they will not again become central components of a global terrorist movement targeting the United States.

Defining the “war on terrorism” as a total war created several diplomatic and political problems. States that had their own terrorist problems,such as India demanded American support, and states whose cooperation was necessary to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were described as close “allies” in the war, despite problematic past and present behavior regarding terrorist groups.

America has had to judge the transgressions of two friends, India and Pakistan, as each accuses the other of supporting terrorism, building up armies along their frontier, or issuing provocative nuclear threats. Will this role of friendly interlocutor continue? Washington has to determine its long-term regional role: will it be an umpire between the two states, calling the shots as it sees them, will it side with one or the other, or will it again retreat from South Asia? The attacks of September 11 came before a review of regional policy could be completed. That review should be undertaken now and should take into account the heightened importance of terrorism, but not ignore other regional concerns suhc as proliferation and strategic cooperation.

Finally, Washington must reassess its studied disinterest in “nation building” in South Asia. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan suffer acute domestic problems that could easily lead to the growth of extremist Islamic movements. Their problems are different—Afghanistan lacks the most fundamental state institutions, especially an army, whereas Pakistan’s state institutions are in gross imbalance and its army too powerful. The remedies for each state will have to be different, but if Washington ignores their domestic political orders now, the cost, as the American ambassador to Pakistan remarked recently, could be measured in American lives in years to come.