How Nuclear-Armed Rivals Pakistan and India Will Test Obama

Their explosive mix of terrorism and nuclear weapons fuels fears of an all-out war.


Guiding U.S. relations with India and Pakistan—two rivals with sometimes deep tensions over terrorism, territorial issues, and nuclear arms—will be among the most complicated foreign policy tasks facing the incoming Obama administration.

During both the Clinton and Bush administrations, South Asia has been moving closer to the core of U.S. foreign policy, for reasons of both hazard and opportunity. The tribal areas of Pakistan are now regarded by the U.S. intelligence community as the single greatest source of international terrorism in the world.

Pakistan, the recipient of some $10 billion in U.S. aid during the Bush years, is being pressured on an array of fronts to combat Islamic militancy as a security threat and as a political movement; shore up civilian rule and prod the powerful military to retreat from politics; and focus on practical state-building and development to overcome entrenched poverty. President Bush has called bringing Pakistan, once a supporter of the Taliban, into the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition after 9/11 one of his administration's major achievements.

Yet Pakistan will, in all likelihood, face more U.S. pressure in the future, particularly after a militant group supported at times by Pakistan's security services has been blamed for the deadly Mumbai terrorist bombings. The Pakistani government will have to accept the dangers of denying sanctuary along the border with Afghanistan to the Taliban insurgents fighting U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan if that war is to be brought to a successful close. As a candidate, Barack Obama highlighted that aim as a top priority and spoke of building a regional approach to accomplish it.

Pakistan and India, both successors of British colonial holdings, also remain at loggerheads over Indian control of the region of Jammu and Kashmir. The two sides have clashed several times, and the dispute has, to many in the region, taken on a religious cast, pitting overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan against majority Hindu India. Greater dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi has, in recent years, helped manage tensions over the fate of those territories. But in part through past help from Pakistani intelligence, the Kashmir issue has become a rallying point for extremist attacks on India, including last November's three-day terror assault on the Indian commercial center of Mumbai that left 164 people dead.

Both countries are also armed with nuclear weapons, imbuing the region's interconnected disputes with some risk of catastrophe. A rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, raised nuclear worries even more by spreading atomic weapons technology to countries attempting to develop the capacity to make bombs.

At the same time, though, U.S. relations with India have taken a major step forward. The Bush administration sought to end decades of political distance and forge a strategic partnership with India.

As the world's most populous democracy, India is increasingly seen in Washington as a natural friend, if not a formal ally. With a liberalizing economy that has made huge strides in recent years, India has attained a trajectory that should make it one of the world's great powers during this century, lending weight to the ranks of moderate, democratic states and serving as a hedge against the rise of China, if that is deemed necessary in the future.

With an eye on managing great-power relations, former U.S. official and Carnegie Endowment scholar Ashley Tellis wrote last year in The Washington Quarterly, "Bush and his advisers saw the necessity for a transformed relationship with a large democratic state such as India from the very beginning."

Such has been the shift in U.S. policy toward India that Bush, with eventual congressional backing, reversed some three decades of nonproliferation policy barring nuclear cooperation with New Delhi. A deal to permit civilian nuclear trade—opposed by many nonproliferation specialists—became the cornerstone of a new strategic relationship, say U.S. officials. Islamabad was pointedly left out. Washington and New Delhi also found significant common ground on dealing with terrorism after 9/11, a posture that has found fresh impetus with the Mumbai attacks. U.S.-Indian military ties are growing as well.