South Asia

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

December 1, 2002

On September 11, 2001, the world learned that the United States was terribly vulnerable to a concerted terrorist attack. Two South Asian states, Afghanistan and Pakistan, were close to the heart of the problem. Both showed that terrorist organizations can be found where corrupt ideologies intersect with maldeveloped societies: Afghanistan was a state that had been commandeered by terrorists; Pakistan had the potential to move in the same direction. The terrorists who attacked the United States were trained in and directed from Al Qaeda leaders based in Afghanistan; in turn, Pakistan was supportive of the Afghan regime and cultivated its own home-grown Islamic radicals, many of whom supported Al Qaeda.

This discovery has transformed the world’s understanding of South Asia. Until the attacks of September, most attention had been devoted to India, the region’s rising power. New Delhi was seen by the Clinton and Bush administrations as a possible Asian strategic partner, and Indians, Americans, and others spoke of New Delhi extending its economic, military, and cultural influence throughout the Indian Ocean area, and working closely with the United States in keeping regional peace. But September 11 set in motion a complex diplomacy that sorely tested the new Indian-U.S. relationship and revived U.S. ties to Islamabad. It also produced a major India-Pakistan crisis that just might lead to a fundamental transformation of regional politics. This transformation in turn could possibly liberate India from its “Pakistan problem,” enabling it to play a more significant role as a major Asian power, not as a mere regional one.

This chapter addresses the major post-September 11 concerns of U.S. policy-making toward South Asia. First, the chapter summarizes the mixed regional picture that existed on the eve of September 11, when Pakistan seemed to be in decline, India was seen as a rising Asian strategic power, and the tensions between them appeared to be manageable.

Next the chapter examines the regional consequences of September 11. The most visible was the U.S. military operation in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which opened the path for the restoration of a free Afghan state. Another consequence of September 11 was the revival of close U.S.-Pakistan relations, which raises the prospect of a long-term U.S. commitment to helping Pakistan contain its own Islamic radicals and cease its support for such groups in neighboring countries, including Afghanistan and the Indian-governed portions of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Defying past experience, the U.S.-Indian strategic relationship was also strengthened, and the United States has, for the first time in fifty years, good relations with both South Asian powers, raising the question as to whether Washington will use this position to help both states move toward some kind of agreement on Kashmir and other issues.

View Full Article (PDF—240kb). Get Adobe Acrobat Reader