WORLDPOST

Why South Asia Is the Next Tinderbox

10/28/2013 10:49 am ET | Updated Dec 28, 2013

The Middle East is mired in sectarian strife, but with the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan next year, a bigger tinderbox awaits in South Asia.

The dispute there is not as much an inter-sect divide as an inter-religious one between mostly-Hindu India and overwhelmingly-Muslim Pakistan. While the animosities are rooted in history, they came to the fore once Pakistan broke away from India in 1947, and became more consequential after both countries went nuclear 15 years ago.

They have come close to all-out war three times since then, only to pull back from the brink. Sanity prevailed, but only after America intervened. The countries had come close to settling their dispute over Kashmir just before the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. The deadly assault emanating from Pakistan put any resolution into cold storage, where it has remained. Anyone listening to the prime ministers of Pakistan and India at the United Nations this year would have felt a sense of déjà vu from the nineties. One droned on about Kashmir, the other about state-sponsored terrorism.

While India remains convinced that Pakistan fosters cross-border terror, Pakistan believes that India has been fomenting trouble in its restive province of Balochistan. India has incessantly denied the charge, but seems to have pricked its own balloon by admitting that its former army chief was instigating secession and violence in Pakistan. Add another item to a long list to bicker over.

The Mumbai attacks were allegedly carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani organization declared terrorist by both the U.S. and the UN. The LeT's stated objective is to unfurl the green crescent over India, a thought that makes many Hindus in India see red. The LeT is also believed to have links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, with significant cross-pollination of cadres.

With the Taliban on track to assume a powerful role in the governance of Afghanistan, India is bracing itself for a fresh assault from jihadi forces redirected from fighting NATO. India has made it clear to Pakistan that any repeat of Mumbai will force it to retaliate militarily. Five years since Mumbai, there has been no significant jihadi strike on India, but this is quite possibly an illusory calm.

Capturing India is too far-fetched a goal for the jihadis, but getting their hands on a nuclear weapon is not so infeasible. Pakistan has developed small battlefield nuclear missiles, which are meant to be dispersed to numerous field commanders to thwart an Indian invasion. In the fog of war, one of these could fall into the wrong hands. Or, a battlefield commander, may, willy-nilly or otherwise, set one off. Voilà: Armageddon. India's official doctrine is to respond to any nuclear attack the same way, massively. Pakistan, of course, is not going to hold back.

Cool-headed leaders on both sides helped diffuse previous confrontations. But the atmospherics in both countries has changed. In India, there is a growing belief that Pakistan must be taught a lesson in the event of another Mumbai. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is increasingly seen as a lone warrior for peace. In any case, he could well be replaced after elections in next year by someone more hawkish.

In Pakistan, where the army has traditionally controlled foreign and security policies, the army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, is retiring soon. The country is wracked by terrorism, with Kayani facing ire for being too reticent in tackling it. India is seen as fanning the flames, so there is little appetite to curb anti-Indian jihadis. The leading contenders for Kayani's job are considered more hard line than him.

The Times of London reported in 2011 that to promote peace, Singh established secret contact with Kayani bypassing Pakistan's civilian government, an unprecedented breach of protocol. Whether correctly reported or not, it is difficult to imagine incoming leaders to be imbued with the temperament for similar outreach.

America's appetite for conflict resolution has waned, especially in a region so intractable. The specter of a "loose nuke" eats away at us though, so we need to keep talking sense to the two countries, but they also have to have leaders who will pay heed.

No other country can broker peace in South Asia. India sees China as Pakistan's fast friend, Pakistan perceives Russia to be close to India, England carries weight with neither. A jihadi strike this time around, without calm people at the helm, could not only set South Asia ablaze, but also prove a nightmare for the world.