India & Pakistan: Still a Potential Nuclear Crisis

India and Pakistan were on the verge of performing their first tests of nuclear bombs in the spring of 1998 when President Bill Clinton proclaimed South Asia "the most dangerous place on earth." The tests went forward 10 years ago this month--India's on May 11 and 13 and  Pakistan's on May 28 and 30. In the decade since, the region has crawled back from the brink. In 2004 the two adversaries began peace negotiations, which are ongoing. Pakistan has made a rocky transition to democracy and New Delhi and Islamabad have recently begun discussions about energy cooperation. With the two rivals making such warm sounds, U.S. policymakers, distracted by trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan, are in danger of largely ignoring the continuing presence and activities of various jihadi groups within Pakistan who remain committed to wreaking havoc in Indian-controlled Kashmir and elsewhere. These entities, which Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate had spawned and nurtured, are still waiting in the wings.

Ignoring them would be a mistake. The nuclear peace between India and Pakistan is far more fragile than it would seem. The trouble is not with the governments of the two rivals so much as the hard-line Islamist organizations in Pakistan who remain unalterably intransigent toward India. They have every interest in reversing the small, fitful steps along the long course toward reconciliation. It wouldn't take much for them to succeed. A series of abrupt attacks against targets in India would not only derail the entire peace process but trigger yet another nuclear crisis in the subcontinent. Despite the limits on their time and energy, U.S. policymakers cannot remain oblivious to the dangers that these groups pose to the fragile peace process. Accordingly, they should work with the new Pakistani regime to push for the dismantling of this jihadi infrastructure.

Despite the restoration of civilian rule in December of last year, the governance of Pakistan remains parlous. Militant groups, almost for a certainty, were behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Since then, they have carried out a series of dramatic bombings in the cities of Lahore and Islamabad. The military, harking back to the time of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, had spawned and fostered a range of these Islamist groups to pursue the twin jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Many of these organizations, in recent months, have now turned on their erstwhile sponsors because of their intense frustration with the Pakistani military's willingness to participate in limited counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.

The popular fear is that one or more of these groups may seize components of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and thereby wreak havoc in the region and beyond. This misgiving, while understandable, is mostly chimerical. Short of a wholesale breakdown of the Pakistani military apparatus, such an outcome, while most frightening, is quite unlikely. The military values its nuclear arsenal and maintains a firm grip on the country's nuclear weapons infrastructure. The more substantial concern is that one of these organizations will precipitate yet another crisis with India in which they embroil the new Pakistani regime.

Such a scenario is anything but farfetched. Though all but forgotten in the United States, most Indians and Pakistanis vividly recall how the two sides came to the brink of war in 2001-2002 in the wake of the brazen terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on Dec. 13, 2001. Members of two Pakistan-based terrorist organizations, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, were implicated in these attacks even though the extent of the Musharraf regime's complicity in the episode remains unknown. As this crisis dragged on into the early summer of 2002, many responsible individuals in the U.S. government feared an escalation of tensions that could have culminated in nuclear war. Fortunately, in the end, India's forceful persuasion and sustained American diplomacy brought the crisis to a close.

Why might the existing jihadi organizations again try to provoke an Indo-Pakistani crisis? The answer is fairly straightforward. General Musharraf, having survived the 2001-2002 crisis, embarked on an uneven peace process with India. The recently elected civilian government, while trying to appease the jihadis at home, has nevertheless shown every inclination to continue this nascent peace process. Such a propensity is clearly intolerable to the militant groups. The jihadis remain unalterably opposed to the peace process, they are hostile toward the new civilian regime in Pakistan and they view India with unremitting hostility.

At one level, the United States, keen on retaining Pakistan as an ally in counterterrorism, has not succeeded in obtaining even a partial accounting of the vast subterranean nuclear bazaar that the renegade Pakistani metallurgist AQ Khan had spawned. The Pakistani military and the intelligence services placed a virtually impenetrable wall around the country's nuclear-weapons estate. It is unlikely that the new Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani will prove to be any more forthcoming than his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, especially in the absence of renewed American pressure. Yet while Khan's clandestine nuclear commerce certainly facilitated the nuclear-weapons programs of dubious regimes in Iran and North Korea, given the intense attention it faces since its full discovery in 2006, it is most unlikely that it will be resurrected in any form. The nuclear danger in the subcontinent lies elsewhere.

U.S. policymakers, whose gaze has now been diverted from the subcontinents' woes, can ill afford to overlook the continued dangers that still lurk from within an unstable and brittle Pakistan. They should recognize that the jihadi threat emanating from within Pakistan's borders is seamless: the Islamist groups attacking American forces along the Afghan border have organic links with the jihadis seeking to provoke yet another Indo-Pakistani conflict with potentially catastrophic consequences. More to the point, their millenarian ideological goals pose a fundamental threat to all democratic societies whether in South Asia or elsewhere. The United States can only afford to ignore the dangers they pose at its own peril.