Despite the degradation of al-Qaeda’s core leadership based in Pakistan and its increased reliance on regional affiliate organizations to conduct attacks, South Asia remains “a frontline in the battle against terrorism,” according to the State Department’s recently released Country Reports on Terrorism 2013.
Ongoing violence and terrorist activity coming out of Pakistan and occurring throughout the region continues to pose a threat to vital U.S. national security interests and emphasizes the need for a strong continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Violence in Afghanistan escalated in the run-up to the April 5 election. The election day itself was marked by unusually high levels of violence, although still well below levels seen during the 2009 Afghan election. Nevertheless, Afghans came out to vote in unprecedented numbers. Their vote was as much a vote cast in favor of the candidates they sought to elect as it was a vote against terrorism and the Taliban.
Now is the time for the Obama Administration to demonstrate it will support the Afghan people in their aspiration to build a better future for the country by committing to leaving a robust residual force presence of at least 10,000 troops, as recommended by top generals. However, the White House seems to be moving in a different direction and has asked the military to come up with options for leaving far fewer troops.
The outcome of negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement—which both leading Afghan presidential candidates have said they will sign—and to-be-determined troop levels will contribute to the terrorism problems in Pakistan. According to the State Department report, Pakistan remains a breeding ground for terrorist groups—including those with links to al-Qaeda, such as the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani network, as well as the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT). The report notes that the Pakistan military took action against the TTP but allowed the LeT to openly train, rally, and fundraise in the country.
A 2013 study measuring the incidence of terrorist attacks in 2012 ranked Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India as having the second, third, and fourth highest rates of domestic terrorist attacks. And the State Department estimates that the number of terrorist attacks has increased by 43 percent in 2013. The threat of terrorism may be evolving, but it is not subsiding.
Terrorism in South Asia continues to pose a severe threat to U.S. interests. In fact, the State Department report noted that LeT identified U.S. interests as “legitimate targets for attacks.”
Heritage South Asia senior fellow Lisa Curtis notes:
Now is not the time for the U.S. to give up on the Afghan mission and turn its back on the country. Instead, it should reinvigorate its commitment to fund and train the Afghan security forces. The White House should also state clearly its commitment to leaving a substantial troop presence of at least 10,000 forces.