Before September 11th, South Asia’s problems were legion: over a billion people, most of them desperately poor; a history of war and violent conflicts; rising religious militancy; hard-line Hindu nationalists in power in India, the army in charge in Pakistan; newly tested nuclear weapons and a get-tough mood. Now, it is also the frontline of the US war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. South Asia may not be able to take the strain. The US needs to ensure that it does nothing to worsen the many crises in South Asia and that it thinks long-term, not short-term, about its policies in the region.

The US bombing campaign against Afghanistan in response to the terrible attacks of September 11th has opened wide the door for Pakistan’s Islamist groups, with their history of anti Americanism and strong ties to the Taliban. Hoping to mobilize the widespread public resentment and anger at the hopelessness of everyday life in Pakistan, these groups have taken to the streets to challenge the military government of President Pervez Musharraf and his decision to support the US. The longer the US bombs Afghanistan and the more civilians get killed, the greater the humanitarian and refugee crisis and the more organized and dangerous the Islamists’ challenge.

There are obvious steps the US should take in the present crisis that would serve also to strengthen the hand of Pakistan’s government against the militants. The US should heed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and suspend its bombing campaign to allow relief supplies to reach the more than seven million Afghans in direst need. Similarly, the US could acknowledge the vital role of the UN and call in Secretary General and new Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kofi Annan, show him the evidence, and ask him to mediate with the Taliban for a hand-over of Osama bin Laden for trial.

Pakistan is also trapped by its conflict with India. Reflecting the intensity and depth of this battle, India and Pakistan have each sought to take advantage of the situation since September 11th. India immediately offered political and military support to the United States in its conflict with the Taliban and urged it to include Pakistani-supported Islamic militants fighting in Kashmir as targets of the US assault on terrorism. Pakistan, under enormous pressure from the US, eventually decided to turn a liability into an asset and sought to cash in on its location and its leverage over the Taliban.

Seeing Pakistan win the US over to its side, and with the militants continuing their attacks in Kashmir, India is now trying another, more dangerous gambit. It has threatened to follow the US example and attack militant training camps and bases in Pakistan. In an ominous development, India has ended a 10 month long effective cease-fire and started shelling Pakistani forces across the border that divides Kashmir.

The US must press Pakistan to end its support for the militants, restrain India from actions that may trigger a South Asian war, and get serious in working with the international community to resolve the half century-old Kashmir dispute. For this effort to be taken seriously, the US must show by word and deed that unilateral military action is not the order of the day.

A longer-term danger are the nuclear weapons in South Asia. The May 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan put the world on watch. The US and the international community used sanctions to pressure both countries to exercise restraint, and to signal a refusal to accept new nuclear weapons states. But, in its search for support in the region, the Bush administration has let go the already waning US efforts to reverse the nuclearization of South Asia. The US is lifting all its sanctions against India and most if not (yet) all sanctions against Pakistan–and economic and military assistance is being offered to both.

India and Pakistan may return with renewed vigor to their conventional and nuclear arms race. India seeks US arms to add to its $4 billion arms deal with Russia and $2 billion deal with Israel. Pakistan’s limited funds have stalled its military purchases. With the army in charge, any resources freed by a blanket lifting of sanctions may go to catching up with India. With political and economic pressures eased, both sides may speed deployment of their nuclear warheads. South Asia may escape the frying pan of terrorism only to fall into the nuclear fire.

Alternatives to Military Aid

While military aid will make things worse, economic aid can play an important role. There is no doubt South Asia’s poor need support. But this will be near useless if the money is simply handed over to the very governments that have for so long neglected their people. Resources must be directed to where the people are and in ways that they can usefully manage to improve the conditions of their daily lives. The US, the international community, and institutions like the World Bank would do well to heed Mahatma Gandhi’s advice: “recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?”

Also long-term is democracy. General Musharraf’s new status as ally in the war against Afghanistan and the man most likely to hold Pakistan together may lead to the lifting of the US sanctions levied after his coup. But, concern about Pakistan’s stability should not translate into abandoning democracy, and Musharraf should not be allowed or encouraged to stay in power. The two previous Pakistani generals who seized power each kept it for the better part of a decade. Civil society withered both times.

Musharraf should hold to his promise of elections and restoring democracy by next October. Elections may be just what it takes to mobilize the majority of Pakistanis in the battle against radical Islam. Whenever they have been allowed to choose who should govern them in the past, Pakistanis have decisively rejected Islamic political parties. They would do so again now. The small crowds on the streets supporting the Islamist groups are testament to that, but another ten years without democracy may change their minds.

*Zia Mian researches South Asian security issues with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. He has also taught at Princeton, Yale, and Quaid-i-Azam University (Islamabad, Pakistan). He is the co-editor of Out of The Nuclear Shadow, a collection of South Asian writing on nuclear disarmament.