If most Americans think Iran and Georgia are the two most volatile flashpoints in the world, one can hardly blame them. The possibility that the Bush administration might strike at Tehran's nuclear facilities has been hinted about for the past two years, and the White House's pronouncements on Russia seem like Cold War déjà vu.
But accelerating tensions between India and Pakistan, coupled with Washington's increasing focus on Afghanistan, might just make South Asia the most dangerous place in the world right now, a region where entirely too many people are thinking the unthinkable.
Pakistan in the Middle
At the heart of this crisis is a beleaguered Pakistan, wracked internally by economic crisis and deep political divisions. Islamabad is simultaneously fearful of New Dehli's burgeoning military power and pressured by Washington's growing alarm over the deteriorating situation in Kabul.
When the Indian government accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) of being behind the recent bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, it revealed what journalist J. Sri Raman calls a "secret war" between the two nations' intelligence agencies. The Indians charge the ISI with being behind a string of bombings in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Jaipur, while the Pakistanis accuse India's intelligence agency, the Research and Intelligence Wing (RAW), of encouraging a separatist movement in Baluchistan and undermining Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan.
The two countries have fought three wars since the 1947 partition, and came perilously close to going nuclear during the Kargil incident in 1999. In the latter flare-up, separatist guerrillas backed by the Pakistani Army attacked Indian troops in Kashmir, leading to a bitter 11-week war.
Elements in both countries have long considered "the unthinkable" - nuclear war - quite thinkable. When Pakistan-sponsored Kashmiri separatists attacked the Indian parliament in December 2001, it set off a round of Armageddon saber-rattling.
Pakistan's General Mirza Aslam Beg, former Pakistani army chief, said that Pakistan "can make a first strike, and a second strike, or even a third."
The talk on the Indian side was no less hair-raising. George Fernandes, India's defense minister at the time, said that "India can survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan cannot."
A U.S. intelligence analysis of a war between India and Pakistan found it would kill up to 12 million people immediately and injure seven million more.
Deal, No Deal
The Bush administration has ratcheted up the tension with its proposed nuclear deal with India. Under the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement, the United States would supply India with nuclear fuel for its civilian program, although India refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The deal would allow India to divert its own meager domestic uranium supplies to its nuclear weapons industry. Although civilian factories in this industry will be open to inspections, the ones that India deems "military" would remain off-limits.
In a July letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, Pakistan warned that the 1-2-3 Agreement "threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent." It would also likely unravel the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
India has a "no first-use" policy. But Pakistan refuses to sign such a pledge, in large part due to the superiority of the Indian military, a superiority that grows day by day. India will import over $30 billion in arms over the next five years, including modern fighter planes, helicopters, tanks, and warships. The Indian air force is currently the world's fourth largest.
Pakistan simply can't match those figures. Its economy is smaller, and it has been hard hit by rising fuel and food prices.
Pakistan's newly elected and deeply divided government is also confronting intense U.S. pressure to halt the cross-border movement of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan.
"The situation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border presents a clear and present danger to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West in general, and the United States in particular," U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden told Congress in March.
But Islamabad has been increasingly unwilling to play spear-carrier for the Bush administration's "war on terror." Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the Guardian that it is "unacceptable that while giving peace to the world we make our own country into a killing field."
The United States has sent dozens of armed robots across the Pakistan border to attack Taliban leaders, many times killing civilians in the process. According to Pakistani officials, U.S. helicopter-borne commandos crossed the border on September 3 and killed up to 20 people.
The current Pakistani government was elected on a platform of making peace with the Taliban, and, in any case, attempts by the Pakistani army to occupy the frontier have failed disastrously. That is hardly surprising. As British General Andrew Skeen noted during the colonial period, "When planning a military expedition into Pashtun tribal areas, the first thing you must plan is your retreat."
Even Washington's allies recognize that the increasingly strident calls by Washington and the Afghan government to close off infiltration from Pakistan are impossible. "You cannot seal borders," says British Defense Minister Des Browne. "We could not seal 26 miles of border between the north and south of Ireland with 40,000 troops." The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is over 1,000 miles, much of it consisting of formidable mountains.
While the White House and NATO are pushing for a military solution in Afghanistan, a recent study by the RAND Corporation, a think tank associated with the U.S. Navy, found "There is no battlefield solution to terrorism. Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended."
Some in Pakistan's current government seem to have reached the same conclusion. "We have to talk to the Taliban," says Asif Ahmed, a member of parliament from the secular Pakistan People's Party, the largest vote getter in the last election. "There is no peace in Pakistan or Afghanistan without it."
Many Pakistanis worry that war in the tribal areas could ignite a movement among Pashtuns on both sides of the border for an independent "Pashtunistan." Pashtuns make up 15%-20% of Pakistan's 165 million people.
Islamabad also worries about increasing Indian influence among Afghanistan's non-Pashtun groups, and the possibility that Pakistan could lose its "strategic depth" in the region, a place to fall back to if they are overwhelmed by an Indian conventional attack.
The United States has long tried to rope India into its efforts to offset growing Chinese power in Asia. Washington has stepped up arms sales to New Delhi, increased joint military training, and is willing to help India increase its stockpile of nuclear weapons. But an India powerful enough to help offset China looks very threatening from Islamabad's point of view.
The most immediate flashpoint is Kashmir, where Indian troops have killed more than two dozen people and injured hundreds. A miscalculation by either side could be disastrous. The flight time for nuclear-armed missiles between the two countries is from three to five minutes.
Every few years the U.S. military conducts "war games" that play out a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Every game ends the same: nuclear war. "It is a scary scenario," Col. Mike Pasquarett, who runs the games at the U.S. War College, told the Wall Street Journal.
Rather than escalating another war, arming India, and pressuring Pakistan, the United States should be pushing for the de-nuclearization of South Asia, peace talks with the Taliban, and a stand-down in Afghanistan.