WASHINGTON -- As Pakistan and India this week resumed their peace process, experts said the two longtime antagonists should commit to preserving dialogue on nuclear confidence building measures even in the event of new terrorist attacks (see GSN, March 29).
Speaking at a nonproliferation conference in Washington hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, panelists agreed that Pakistani-based extremists are likely to carry out further strikes on Indian soil.
The last time that happened, in November 2008, more than 160 people died in the city of Mumbai. New Delhi subsequently withdrew from the peace talks and accused Islamabad of failing to suppress the extremist group that coordinated the attacks.
"Unconventional attacks on Indian soil by outfits and individuals trained in Pakistan are likely to be repeated," Michael Krepon, South Asia program director at the Henry L. Stimson Center, told conference attendees.
"The target will be not in Kashmir but in New Delhi or Bangalore or Hyderabad, someplace where India has a great deal of pride that is embodied in a structure of some kind -- a structure that relates to India’s economic growth and international connectivity," Krepon predicted.
The next crisis will take place in a "very fluid nuclear environment" in which Pakistan has moved to increase its fissile material production capacity and weapons count, India is looking to introduce new cruise and ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads, and both nations’ nuclear programs are being modernized, Krepon said (see GSN, Feb. 1).
India and Pakistan have gone to war three times since 1947. The South Asian states’ evolving nuclear capabilities and the lack of transparency surrounding their deterrents increase the chances that a new terrorist event in India could lead to military or even nuclear conflict, the experts said. The danger exists because neither side has complete clarity on how far the other would go in escalatory retaliations, they explained.
This highlights the importance of resuming bilateral discussions on nuclear confidence building measures and establishing those talks as wholly separate from the broader "composite dialogue" in hopes they might continue regardless of any new crisis, argued Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser for the United States Institute of Peace.
The composite dialogue in the past has involved discussions aimed at minimizing the chances of a miscalculation that could lead to a nuclear exchange. Pakistan and India have pledged to notify the other following any nuclear mishap and to give advance notice of ballistic missile tests (see GSN, Oct. 19, 2007). The two sides also have a longstanding agreement to annually exchange lists of their respective nuclear sites (see GSN, Jan. 3).
Yusuf suggested that any new atomic talks include diplomats from both sides as well as representatives from their nuclear-weapon programs. The determination to continue with the talks even in the wake of a new terrorist attack would be a matter of political will from both sides, particularly from New Delhi, he said.
Should India come under another terrorism attack and the government again bow to public pressure to withdraw from the peace process, the Indian government could have an easier time in arguing that the nuclear talks would continue apart from the composite dialogue, as "the risk factor (of a nuclear incident) is just too high" to allow them to be derailed, Yusuf said.
"It’s always political will that determines what happens," he told Global Security Newswire.
"The bottom line is simply, until India agrees that dialogue will be uninterruptible, even if there is at terrorist attack … there will be [another] terrorist attack and the dialogue will rupture," Yusuf said, explaining that "when you put the stakes at one attack and no more dialogue, you’re incentivizing these nonstate actors [who do not want to see New Delhi and Islamabad reconciled] to launch more attacks."
In unofficial "Track 2" talks between both sides, a strong feeling has emerged that nuclear dialogue must be separate and insulated from the peace process, according to the expert. The challenge has become translating that understanding into New Delhi and Islamabad’s official policy.
Yusuf said he did not think though that nuclear confidence building measures would be the focus of the relaunched peace process. "I think it’s going to be on the back burner," he said.
"I don’t see much receptivity on either side to start discussing issues of nuclear risk reduction and nuclear programs per se like mature nuclear weapons states should do," Yusuf said.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology security studies professor Vipin Narang agreed that a determination by New Delhi to continue the peace process even after another mass casualty attack would more decisively demonstrate to militants India’s resolve to see the process through.
Narang, however, told GSN by e-mail he was doubtful the nuclear talks, whether separate or within the composite dialogue, could truly be insulated from politics.
Krepon also said he did not think a nuclear dialogue could effectively be depoliticized.
"If the [next terrorism] attack is directed against an important target, causes many casualties, and can be traced back to Pakistan, dialogue will most likely be suspended across the board," he stated by e-mail.
Narang said he favored keeping the nuclear confidence-building within the peace process as the two states’ nuclear and conventional postures are directly tied to issues such as terrorism, the disputed Kashmir region and resource rights. It makes more sense to address all issues together within the composite dialogue rather than individually, he argued.
India and Pakistan’s home secretaries met on Monday and Tuesday for talks aimed at laying the groundwork for a new round of minister-level peace negotiations in July. Additionally, on Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, viewed the India-Pakistan World Cup cricket match together.
Even with the resumed peace process, the threat of military conflict remains, Yusuf said. Should Pakistani-based militant groups carry out new attacks, "the majority sense seems to be that India will have to do something. There’s too much of a reputational issue attached here bordering on impotence and irrelevancy of the deterrent in some ways if India does not respond," Yusuf said.
While urging India to commit to persisting with peace talks in the wake of potential terrorist strikes, Yusuf said Pakistan must also do all it can to counter extremism within its borders. He urged Islamabad to fully collaborate with New Delhi on counterterrorism and applauded the Tuesday announcement that Pakistan would finally permit Indian authorities investigating the Mumbai attacks to enter the country.
For joint counterterrorism efforts to truly be effective, the Pakistani army’s worldview should be reoriented so it is no longer fixated on opposing India, according to Narang. "That to me is the ultimate crisis prevention," he said at the Carnegie conference.
Should Pakistan and India decide they are ready to pursue new confidence building measures, a number of recommendations have been floated by the think tank community. In a February analysis for the Stimson Center, Krepon recommended that the current pledge by the two countries not to attack the other’s nuclear facilities be expanded to include other key sites such as historic sites and dams.
"The prenotification agreement for ballistic missile flight tests could be expanded to include cruise missiles, as Pakistan has previously proposed. The joint counterterrorism mechanism, which was doomed to failure by appointing diplomats as co-chairs, can do no worse and might do better if led by intelligence officials," Krepon wrote.