The Call

Top Risk No. 8: India-Pakistan

Top Risk No. 8: India-Pakistan

By Ian Bremmer and David Gordon

South Asia is still a morass in 2010, but the U.S. troop surge has given Obama some time. Afghanistan will produce bigger and bigger domestic headlines, but not much will actually change until the United States reaches (or, more likely, is forced to reach) a decision point. For now, that’s 2011 at the earliest.

Having said that, there’s a broader South Asia risk developing this year. The decision by Pakistan to go after terrorists domestically provides Islamic extremists with powerful reasons to expand asymmetric attacks on Pakistan’s urban centers and to try to reignite Indian-Pakistani conflict. That’s easy enough to do. Pakistan’s extremist groups have increased in sophistication and consolidated their capacity, both by joining together and by forging closer links to al Qaeda in the region. In Pakistan, a significant proportion of the population continues to believe that terrorist attacks against the population originate in India. Pakistani networks operating in India haven’t gotten much attention, however, and represent a weak link on the counterterrorist front.

This means that the likelihood of attacks in India and against Indian targets in the region is increasing, a particular worry given the nature of the potential targets (government facilities and densely populated urban areas). The Indian government is aware of the threat and has sought to improve its counterterrorist response — including via increased ground-level coordination in Delhi and Mumbai with American and British counterterrorist organizations. But progress has been slow, and India’s counterterrorism capacity remains underdeveloped, badly coordinated, and vulnerable.

Meanwhile, any new attacks would put serious pressure on India to take a tougher line on Pakistan. India’s Congress Party leadership is loath to escalate military tensions with Pakistan. But following a quieter line after the Mumbai attacks in late 2008, it made strong demands on Pakistan to take decisive steps against extremist networks with ties to India. Successful large-scale attacks would undermine the Congress Party’s credibility on the issue, leading the Indian government to take outsized steps in raising the military posture toward Pakistan. That, in turn, means Pakistan shifting its focus away from the tribal areas and, as importantly, changing its strategic view on taking on further operations — a shift that would sit comfortably with much of Pakistan’s senior military command, who still see rising India as Pakistan’s main strategic challenge.

Indian-Pakistani relations, which had been quietly improving during the final years of the Musharraf regime, have already deteriorated somewhat under President Asif Ali Zardari, and it will prove harder for both sides to back away from any high-level military alert. Meanwhile, in both Delhi and Islamabad, Obama’s pledge during his Afghan speech to begin U.S. troop withdrawals in 2011 is being read as a signal that the United States is minimizing its long-term commitment to the region. This feeds the already powerful views in both capitals that they should plan for continuation of their long-term strategic rivalry. Worst case, should there be a series of terror attacks in India, we could see Indian efforts to secure international sanctions against Pakistan — and potentially surgical strikes by India against military training camps inside Pakistan. In short, for the first time in nearly a decade, there are serious factors pushing the Indian and Pakistani governments back toward confrontation.

Next stop: Eastern Europe.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, and David Gordon is the firm’s head of research.