India and Pakistan each possess more than 100 nuclear warheads. Their political establishments really don’t like each other. Correspondingly, we should always pay heed to tensions between the two nations.
A new crisis is brewing.
Last week, India announced it will establish protected settlements to rehouse about 200,000 Hindus in the Kashmir Valley. Forced out of Indian Kashmir by Pakistan-supported Islamists in 1989-1990, the displaced citizens are a priority for Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government. Conversely, Islamist protests illustrate opposition to Hindu empowerment. India and Pakistan have been fighting over the province of Kashmir since independence from Britain in 1947; they have fought three wars over it, in fact.
Then on Friday, Pakistan released Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, ringleader of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people across India’s financial capital. While Pakistan’s primary intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, has protected Lakhvi from prosecution, his release is striking. Because Pakistan knows that India knows that Lakhvi’s group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, benefits from the spy agency’s support, guidance and shelter. And it’s releasing him anyway.
Believing men like Lakvhi can undercut India’s regional influence, the ISI’s pro-extremist element is flexing its muscles by releasing him. The problem, however, is that it’s not just Lakhvi on the loose. With an array of terrorist groups under its thumb — elements of the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban, for two — the ISI has a terror portfolio with which to wreak havoc. And as attested by the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, the spy agency has repeatedly proven its support for groups that risk war. Lakhvi’s release is both a physical threat and a possible signal of increasing Pakistani aggression. It illustrates the looming danger in near-term India-Pakistan relations.
Regardless, the present crisis is centrally connected to Kashmir.
As evidenced by statements from Pakistan’s powerful army chief, General Raheel Sharif, and recent exchanges of fire, and with India now building Hindu-sectarian influence in the region, the risk of conflict between the two nations is increasingly real. Still, with Pakistan openly paranoid about India’s greater power, the country’s leaders are likely to regard what’s happening in Kashmir as a reflection of a broader Indian plan to weaken Pakistan.
Pakistan’s hardline anti-India factions will push for a tough response. While General Sharif has shown courage in previously confronting the hard-liners, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s weakness means that he has few reliable allies; the potential for escalation is thus significant. This mix of fear and emotion is at the heart of Pakistani politics and explains why successive governments have been either unwilling or unable to counter terrorist fanatics.
In addition, with Modi in New Delhi, this Indian government is far less tolerant of Pakistani terrorism than its predecessor. A repeat Mumbai 2008 would ignite a far stronger response. The risk is that Pakistan may gamble otherwise.
There is a central reality of international relations at stake here: Extremism is a political toxin that, unconfronted by strong leadership, risks disaster. Whatever happens, we’re left with a tragic truth. Four months after hundreds of school children were brutally murdered, Pakistan is re-energizing its demented waltz with terror.
Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for The National Review and Contributor to the Daily Telegraph. He’s a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute.