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UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
Avoiding Another Close Call in South Asia
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Lee Feinstein

Nuclear weapons have yet to bring about a hoped-for period of détente and stability between India and Pakistan. So far, the subcontinent’s nuclear era has been marked by chronic crises and close calls: India and Pakistan have come close to war three or four times since 1990 and edged toward nuclear war at least twice. The disputes have grown more intense and more frequent with time.

The Bush administration’s skillful crisis diplomacy has reduced tensions in the latest dispute, triggered by last December’s attack on the Indian parliament by Pakistani-based insurgent groups. But the peace is tenuous, and India and Pakistan will continue to test each other’s limits. Sustained American diplomatic engagement needs to supplant crisis management as the main tool for reducing the possibility of war between these two nuclear nations.

A place to begin is to remake the U.S.-sponsored stability talks with India and Pakistan that began after their nuclear tests in May 1998. These talks ran out of steam after President Clinton’s landmark trip to India and Pakistan in March 2000, and they have been in limbo since President Bush took office, although the administration has begun to show more interest since September 11.

America’s transformed relationships with both India and Pakistan would give the United States strong leverage in recalibrated and re-energized talks on regional confidence-building and restraint. In any event, the importance of stability in South Asia to the success of the U.S. anti-terror campaign makes resumption of these negotiations a national security priority, even amid the heavy agenda already facing the administration’s foreign policy team.

Past Nuclear Brushes

The nuclear era on the subcontinent began sometime in the late 1980s or in 1990, depending on who is doing the bookkeeping. India had demonstrated its nuclear capacity with a nuclear test in 1974, and in the fall of 1990 the United States officially acknowledged for the first time that Pakistan had acquired a nuclear capacity. At that time, the first Bush administration effectively cut off U.S. assistance to Islamabad by failing to certify its non-nuclear status, a congressionally mandated condition of U.S. aid at the time.

The first close call of the subcontinent’s nuclear era also took place in 1990, in the first half of the year. Indian interference in Kashmiri politics in the mid-1980s, including the ousting of elected state government representatives and vote-rigging, helped foment a popular uprising in the Vale of Kashmir in 1989, which the Pakistani government actively supported. India wanted to stem infiltration of insurgents into the Indian-held portion of Kashmir and claimed Pakistan was preparing to use the militant attacks to support a broader military intervention. Pakistani charges centered on Indian tank mobilizations and troop reinforcements, which Islamabad alleged were being readied for an attack on Pakistani Kashmir, using a spontaneous insurgency as the pretext. Mobilizations and countermobilizations were scrutinized amid a war of words, including nuclear threats that alarmed Washington.

In May 1990, President Bush dispatched his deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates, to the region. His meetings with Indian and Pakistani officials helped to defuse the situation. India announced the withdrawal of some units that had been deployed earlier in the year, and the crisis passed within a couple of weeks. Subsequent accounts by senior Bush administration officials described the crisis as having edged close to nuclear war.1

The second close call took place in 1999, when Pakistani regular troops seized Indian positions at Kargil, a remote location in the Himalayan mountains, that had been evacuated for the winter. Like the earlier brush with war, this one also required U.S. diplomatic intervention. Bruce Reidel, who was the senior White House adviser on South Asia, has written a compelling account of President Clinton’s personal negotiations with then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that culminated in a dramatic July 4 meeting at Blair House, at which Clinton warned that Pakistan was playing with nuclear war.2

The result of the summit meeting was a short public statement in which a reluctant Sharif agreed that Pakistani troops would return to positions behind the Line of Control, the de facto international border separating Indian- and Pakistani-held Kashmir. Asked to comment about Reidel’s account of the nuclear peril, former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who led U.S. talks with India and Pakistan following the 1998 tests, said the Kargil dispute “had the potential of going all the way.”

There is disagreement about the lessons the Indians and Pakistanis have drawn from the Kashmir crises of 1990 and 1999, but it is clear that they were testing one another’s limits and that the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides bracketed their actions. In the 1990 standoff, India faced a credible nuclear threat from Pakistan for the first time, and the case can be made that Pakistan’s nuclear capacity ultimately tempered India’s reaction. In the second crisis, Pakistan may have acted believing that nuclear weapons would restrain Indian military responses. Pakistan may have also counted on U.S. and world support in light of the risk of nuclear war. It turned out that the United States and almost every other significant power, including Pakistan’s ally, China, laid blame at Islamabad’s doorstep. Isolated and dependent on international goodwill, it was Pakistan’s turn to relent.

The Latest Round

The current crisis has had two phases. The first was triggered by last December’s attack on the Indian parliament. Tensions intensified after a May 14 attack by militants that killed 32 people in Jammu, mostly the families of Indian soldiers. Islamic militants also killed Abdul Ghani Lone, a long-time Kashmiri voice of moderation. Meanwhile, sectarian violence by Hindus against Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat stoked tensions further. By the spring, one million Indian and Pakistani troops had been facing off for six months, amid the daily exchange of artillery fire and increasingly inflamed rhetoric on both sides. As in 1990 and 1999, the United States intervened diplomatically to avert war, making George W. Bush the third U.S. president in a row to be drawn into the Kashmir dispute.

By the third week of May, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said in a speech to soldiers that the time was right for a decisive battle, the full weight of U.S. diplomacy had swung into action. Secretary of State Colin Powell dispatched his deputy, Richard Armitage, to the region in June and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the region the following week. President Bush also made a rare call to both leaders. A supporting international cast backed the parade of U.S. officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The flurry of emergency activity yielded a commitment by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to stop permanently infiltration by Islamic militants into India and a pledge to dismantle the camps out of which the militants train and operate. India responded to Musharraf’s guarantee after having satisfied itself that he had, in fact, delivered the order to stop infiltration and that it was being carried out. The modest, but significant, Indian response has so far included resumption of commercial flights between India and Pakistan, reassignment of a high commissioner to Islamabad, and reduction of Indian naval forces in the region. Major troop reductions are not expected on either side before Kashmiri elections in October and national parliamentary elections in Pakistan the same month. By that time, it is hoped, the onset of winter will chill the war fever.

We will have to wait for a future former administration official to tell us how close the U.S. government believed both sides came to nuclear war. Many U.S. officials, including Rumsfeld, publicly downplayed the risk of nuclear war. Powell was more circumspect, saying that “to think of using [nuclear weapons] as just another weapon in what might start out as a conventional conflict in this day and age seems to me to be something that no side should be contemplating.” What we do know is that the State Department authorized the withdrawal of nonessential embassy personnel and their dependents from India and that for the first time it advised Americans traveling in India to leave. (American visitors to Pakistan had been warned and nonessential personnel withdrawn from Pakistan months earlier because of terrorist threats.)

The impact of the latest crisis on Indian and Pakistani official thinking also remains uncertain.

Musharraf may well conclude that—particularly in the current climate—the world will not support terrorist tactics even to redress the legitimate human rights and democracy grievances of Kashmiris. Hopefully, the combined effect of Kargil, where the world community opposed aggressive tactics by Pakistani regular troops, and the current crisis, where the world denounced attacks by militants, will demonstrate to Pakistan that an honorable outcome can be reached only through diplomatic means. It is significant that Musharraf took the first step since he is the Pakistani official widely believed to be the architect of the Kargil operation.

Recent statements by the Pakistani leadership also point to a possible softening of Islamabad’s earlier rhetoric regarding the use of nuclear weapons. In a June 1 interview with CNN, Musharraf said, “I don’t think either side is that irresponsible to go to that limit. …[A]ny sane individual cannot even think of going into this unconventional mode, whatever the pressures.” A senior Pakistani embassy official said this statement was meant as a signal to India: although Pakistan would not adopt a nuclear no-first-use policy, as India had demanded, it was prepared to lower the nuclear threshold and make clear Pakistan would not resort to nuclear war under the current circumstances.

In New Delhi, the current crisis has further opened India’s eyes to the benefits of an international—and particularly an American—role in Kashmir now that the world has again taken its side in the dispute. India, in fact, may now have excessively high expectations about what U.S. diplomacy can deliver, depending on Washington to bail it out when things get hairy. Many believe India’s ratcheting up of the war rhetoric in April and May was a pressure tactic aimed as much at Washington as at Islamabad. That said, India is still placing conditions on direct talks with Pakistan on Kashmir, and it continues to resist a supportive third-party role for the United States or others in establishing a political process to deal with the 55-year-old dispute.

Many Indian officials continue to deride international concern about the risk of nuclear war in South Asia as if India and Pakistan, unlike the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, are somehow immune from nuclear risks. The fact that Pakistan has not used nuclear weapons and has backed down in the most recent standoffs seems also to have encouraged aggressive rhetoric in some public Indian statements. Remarks by Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes and Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani implying that India would not be daunted by Pakistan’s nuclear capability were especially worrying.

In the long term, the persistent instability over Kashmir will increase pressures for an arms competition between India and Pakistan. The Indian government will argue a strong and ready nuclear capability is necessary to convince Pakistan of New Delhi’s seriousness and to deter it from launching a nuclear attack. Pakistan, in response, will want to maintain nuclear parity with India so as not to be intimidated.

The Stability Talks

If we are lucky, the most recent close call in South Asia will give impetus to a renewal and recalibration of U.S.-sponsored stability talks in the region. The Clinton-era talks were pathbreaking but produced limited concrete results and, at first glance, seemingly little incentive to continue them into the next presidency. A closer look, however, suggests their potential, particularly given Washington’s strong relations with both India and Pakistan since September 11.

From 1998 through President Clinton’s visit to Pakistan and India in March 2000, the first by an American president in a generation, the Clinton administration conducted an intense and unprecedented series of high-level talks with India and Pakistan on stability in the subcontinent.

The talks were ignited by India’s nuclear tests conducted in the Pokhran desert on May 11 and May 13. The United States had long been concerned about the prospect of Indian nuclear tests but two months earlier had received high-level public and private assurances that the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government “would continue to show restraint in the nonproliferation field, and would do nothing to surprise us.”3 As a result, the timing of the tests took the intelligence community by surprise, and the seventh floor of the State Department learned of the explosions on the morning of May 11 from a public announcement by the Indian government.

After the tests, President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked Strobe Talbott, with long arms control expertise in and out of government, to lead an interagency effort to develop the American response. Talbott commanded the authority and prestige that would prove particularly important with a status-conscious Indian Foreign Ministry and a BJP government hungry for international recognition. He assembled a core group of State Department and White House officials, whose first agenda item focused on persuading Pakistan not to respond in kind to India’s nuclear tests—a difficult task given a decade of deterioration in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

The focus of the two-week campaign was a high-level delegation to Islamabad, led by Talbott, that also included General Anthony Zinni, who had fostered good relations with Pakistan as head of U.S. Central Command; Bruce Reidel of the National Security Council; Robert Einhorn, who directed the administration’s nonproliferation policy; and Rick Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. The team offered Islamabad a substantial aid package and a promise of closer ties if it would forgo testing. But the U.S. delegation was unable to sway Pakistan, despite what appeared to be genuine misgivings about testing by Nawaz Sharif, as well as by Pakistani diplomats in Washington.

The die had already been cast, and Pakistan soon declared that on May 28 and May 30 it had conducted six nuclear tests, one more than India had announced earlier that month.

U.S. policy then shifted to promoting restraint on the subcontinent through a series of high-level and expert meetings with India and Pakistan. India selected Jaswant Singh to be Talbott’s partner at the talks. Ultra-urbane and personally close to Vajpayee, Singh was a worthy interlocutor for Talbott, one of Bill Clinton’s roommates at Oxford. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s designated envoy to the United States would change over the course of the discussions, and Washington would use different channels to convey its message.

In Washington, Talbott’s core group settled on a strategy of pursuing five goals, or “benchmarks,” for India and Pakistan backed by a diplomatic strategy to build international support behind them. In the weeks following the nuclear tests, the UN Security Council, the G-8, and a supporting group of states that had ended or renounced nuclear programs, ranging from Argentina to Ukraine, also embraced the pursuit of these goals in South Asia:

  • signature and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which had been negotiated three years earlier;
  • an end to production of fissile material for weapons;
  • stricter export controls;
  • nondeployment of nuclear weapons and the missiles and aircraft to deliver them; and
  • confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of war over Kashmir.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Shortly after they conducted their nuclear tests, both India and Pakistan adopted voluntary moratoriums on further nuclear testing, which still remain in effect. On the basis of the voluntary halts, and in light of the fact that the test ban treaty would arguably allow either side to resume testing if the other broke its obligations, administration officials judged this to be one of the easier benchmarks to reach. Moreover, it was possibly the most important benchmark politically because it would illustrate that India and Pakistan had taken visible steps toward restraint in deference to world opinion.

The test ban remained out of reach, however. It was generally expected that Pakistan would not go first, unpersuaded by an American appeal to Islamabad to seize the moral high ground. The BJP government told American negotiators that it needed to build a national consensus on the question, given the negative associations surrounding the CTBT, which India opposed at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, where the agreement was finalized. Numerous domestic crises delayed the promised effort to build consensus, and a scheduled debate in the Indian parliament never took place.

The U.S. Senate’s rejection of the CTBT in 1999 then dimmed the prospects for Indian action, and presidential candidate George W. Bush’s opposition to the CTBT further undermined U.S. diplomatic leverage.

Fissile Material Cutoff

Pakistan temporarily removed procedural blocks it had imposed at the Geneva negotiations on a fissile material cutoff. Nonetheless, Islamabad never seriously considered agreeing to a moratorium on production, despite a public declaration by its leading nuclear scientist that Pakistan had already produced sufficient stockpiles of fissile material.

India never seriously entertained a moratorium, either. It was engaged in an effort to expand its capacity to produce bomb-usable materials. India rejected proposals to agree to a halt conditioned on Pakistani agreement. It dismissed a proposal to agree to a cutoff when the other six states that had tested nuclear weapons—the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, and Pakistan—also agreed. And it rejected a proposal to halt production on a “date certain” to be set by India itself.

Export Controls

Neither country has agreed to adopt control lists consistent with international standards governing the export of sensitive items, although there has been a series of important negotiations at the expert level on these issues. India frequently describes its export control procedures as “impeccable,” although they fall short of international standards.

Reports of Pakistani nuclear scientists traveling to the Persian Gulf region, North Korea, and Afghanistan have raised the most serious questions as to the security of Pakistani nuclear and missile secrets. China’s support to Pakistani nuclear programs, directly or through third parties, also remains a concern. China has yet to fulfill its November 2000 commitment to the United States not to assist Pakistan’s missile programs in any way.


Efforts to promote Indian or Pakistani voluntary statements about the future direction of their nuclear programs proved frustrating. The United States sought statements by India to define its self-declared aim of maintaining a “credible minimum deterrent” at the lowest possible levels. But the nuclear doctrine issued by India’s semi-official National Security Advisory Board in August 1999 suggested no end to India’s nuclear plans; in fact, it recommended an Indian triad of nuclear-capable submarines, aircraft, and missiles.

Pakistan exchanged detailed papers with U.S. negotiators on nondeployment of nuclear weapons, but they were never developed into concrete proposals. On this benchmark, as with the others, Pakistan declined to go first because of Nawaz Sharif’s tenuous grip on power.

Confidence-Building Measures

India and Pakistan may have come closest to making progress on confidence-building measures related to Kashmir. Prime Minister Vajpayee took a historic bus trip to Lahore in 1999, which culminated in a declaration that included a substantial list of measures to be adopted and a tentative framework for negotiating and implementing them. Progress toward these measures, however, was undone by the Kargil operation, which left Vajpayee feeling double- crossed. Musharraf’s overthrow of Nawaz Sharif was the final nail in the coffin.

The stability talks failed to make more progress toward the benchmarks for several reasons. The Indian government ran out the clock on the Clinton administration, which was almost halfway through its second term by the time of the May 1998 nuclear tests. In addition, nuclear security competed with other foreign policy priorities: forging a stronger relationship with India on one hand and dealing with the consequences of Pakistan’s crisis of governance—links to terrorism and a military coup—on the other. In addition, the improvement in U.S.-Indian relations was still in the trial phase, and U.S. relations with Pakistan were at a low point.

An earlier, more concentrated focus on the first benchmark—joining the CTBT—might have produced a better, if narrower, outcome for the United States, leading to Indian and Pakistani signature and possibly adherence to the test ban. That said, although the CTBT had high political visibility, some of the other benchmarks—notably, nondeployment and confidence-building measures—were more important in terms of promoting stability in the region.

No one realistically expected India or Pakistan to move quickly or easily to rein in their nuclear programs after tit-for-tat nuclear test explosions and amid recurring tensions over Kashmir. It took the United States and the Soviet Union many years to undertake commitments of substantially less reach, and it was clear that success toward the benchmarks would require patient diplomacy over a sustained period.

The stability talks did produce a qualified success in terms of international cooperation on proliferation issues. In addition to the UN and G-8 resolutions supporting stability and security on the subcontinent, the G-7 agreed in June 1998 to postpone most World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans (those covering “non-basic human needs”) to India and Pakistan until there was demonstrated progress toward the benchmarks. These multilateral sanctions, though continually tested and occasionally compromised, held longer than any other multilateral restrictions, including those imposed against China after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The most important outcome of the talks, however, was that they created the foundation for the transformational improvement in relations with India and possibly with Pakistan as well. Like the early arms control talks between the United States and the Soviet Union, discussions between the United States and India on the narrow topic of stability secured an opening for a broader and deeper dialogue at high levels. This was critical not just for a deeper U.S.-India partnership, but also, in the end, the best route to achieving U.S. nonproliferation goals. By the time of President Clinton’s visit to India, the two countries had agreed to disagree on the nuclear issue. Relations would continue to improve on the basis of shared values and interests, including a commitment to democracy. That said, the nuclear issue would place an upper limit on the extent of bilateral cooperation.

Arguably, the intermittent communications with Pakistan—including President Clinton’s five-hour stopover in Islamabad to meet with Musharraf, during which cooperation on terrorism was discussed—helped sensitize Pakistan to U.S. concerns and eased its decision after September 11 to side with the United States in the anti-terror campaign.

The Potential of New Talks

The Bush administration entered office with a very different approach to conflict prevention in South Asia and around the world.

As a general principle, the administration views weapons proliferation as inevitable. It has judged diplomatic efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction to be, at best, well intentioned but unlikely to affect decision-making by leaders determined to acquire them. As a result, the administration has steered U.S. policy toward dealing with the consequences of proliferation, rather than preventing it in the first place. To this end, the administration has focused on missile defense, deterrence, and pre-emption at the expense of complementary diplomatic tools, including international agreements, bilateral understandings, sanctions, and political pressure.

In South Asia, this approach called into question the administration’s commitment to the stability talks, even though Washington continued to raise some of the benchmarks in bilateral discussions conducted in the first half of 2001. The Bush administration also began discussions early in its term on removing the nuclear-related sanctions on both countries, particularly India, and delinked this decision from progress toward the benchmarks. Of course, after the terrorist attacks, the United States correctly lifted all nuclear-related sanctions on both countries, leaving in place only limited missile- and democracy-related sanctions on Islamabad.

The Bush administration now has an unprecedented opportunity to promote stability and security on the subcontinent. For the first time since partition, the United States has good relations with India and Pakistan at the same time. U.S. leverage is reinforced by Pakistan’s need for U.S. and international assistance and India’s strong desire to maintain warm relations with the West and foster foreign trade and investment. The lifting of the sanctions can be used to increase Washington’s influence with New Delhi and Islamabad.

It is not too late to help shape the subcontinent’s political-military future. Although India and Pakistan have now both demonstrated a nuclear capacity, the future direction of their nuclear and missile programs is still very much open. Such key questions as how many and what type of weapons each plans to build; how they plan to deliver those weapons; what doctrines they will adopt to govern their potential use; whether they would be operationally deployed; and the type of command and control system each chooses to build all remain to be decided. U.S. and international diplomacy can still affect the outcome.

Refocused U.S. stability talks with India and Pakistan should focus on three goals: preventing weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands; averting conflict between India and Pakistan and reducing the risk of a nuclear war; and mitigating negative side effects on countries outside South Asia that are flirting with the nuclear option.

Safeguarding Nuclear Weapons

This goal overlaps with the third benchmark of the earlier stability talks—establishing solid export controls in both India and Pakistan. In light of concerns about the stability of Pakistan and given the post-September 11 partnership between the United States and Pakistan, it is now also possible to consider U.S.-Pakistani and U.S.-Indian cooperation akin to the successful Cooperative Threat Reduction program with Russia. Cooperation might include a number of steps:

  • sharing of organizational “best practices,” including personnel reliability programs, site security, and rapid-response teams;
  • provision of nonsensitive equipment, including monitoring equipment for vaults, tracking equipment for nuclear weapons, and communications equipment; and
  • table-top exercises to assist in identifying potential vulnerabilities and requirements.4

Preliminary discussions along these lines have taken place between the United States and Pakistan, and pending legislation in Congress would require the administration to report on such cooperation and, possibly, provide money to support it.

Washington should continue to withhold certain technologies and components consistent with its legal obligations, including the prohibition in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapons State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” This prohibition would extend both to assistance that might help either country operationalize its nuclear weapons and to safety and security devices, such as permissive action links, intrinsic to advanced U.S. weapons designs. U.S. legal obligations necessarily complicate security cooperation with Pakistan and India, but they do not need to block it.

Of course, in Pakistan the best approach for preventing instability—and therefore weapons proliferation—is to address Islamabad’s long-standing crisis of governance through international assistance and the promotion of civil society, the rule of law, and democracy.

Averting War

The next U.S. goal is to develop policies to reduce the risks of conventional war between India and Pakistan; to dampen pressures for a nuclear and missile arms competition on the subcontinent; and to reduce the risks of deliberate, accidental, or inadvertent nuclear war. This objective incorporates two of the benchmarks from the earlier stability talks—nondeployment and confidence-building measures—and should incorporate a third dimension: expert and military-to-military discussions to share experiences and information about the routes to nuclear escalation.

The Lahore Declaration of 1999 contains a helpful list of useful confidence-building measures. However, the legacy of that document has made it a political hot potato. Prime Minister Vajpayee is leery because the “spirit of Lahore” was tainted by Pakistan’s military actions in Kargil. President Musharraf dislikes the Lahore Document because it was concluded by Nawaz Sharif, the man he ousted. Getting these confidence-building measures on track is critical.

The most important confidence-building measure, however, is continued U.S. engagement in the region to encourage direct talks between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. The United States does not want to mediate—and India will not permit it to do so—but the truth is the United States is, and must continue to be, deeply involved. Without a political process, India and Pakistan will approach the brink of war again.
To prevent accidental or inadvertent nuclear war, the United States should consider unclassified dialogues among retired officials to think through possible pathways to a nuclear crisis. Additionally, discussions between U.S. military officers and their Indian and Pakistani counterparts might clarify the issue of command and control in a crisis. Such talks would be especially timely in Pakistan, where there is a renewed relationship between U.S. and Pakistani military officers after a decade-long interruption.

Concerning nondeployment, Indian officials have said the ambitious report of the National Security Advisory Board is unofficial, but they should be encouraged to be more specific about their plans. In this regard, the United States should encourage India and Pakistan to define their professed goal of a “credible minimum deterrent” at the lowest possible level. There need not be a bilateral agreement between India and Pakistan, but a voluntary elaboration of each government’s views on its minimum deterrent posture would be useful. Pakistan might build on recent statements by President Musharraf to adopt a position that depicts nuclear weapons as “weapons of last resort,” borrowing language from NATO’s 1990 London Declaration. Another helpful step would be reaffirmation by both sides of their voluntary moratoriums on nuclear testing, although Washington should not exert much leverage on behalf of a pledge both sides continue to uphold.

Mitigating Side Effects

The United States is at a critical juncture in the effort to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and developments on the subcontinent will have a significant impact on the perceptions and decisions of other key states. The goal is to avoid a “cascading effect” whereby second-tier states feel increasingly exposed by their earlier decision to forego nuclear weapons.

In the Middle East, particularly in Iran and Egypt, policymakers have taken notice of Pakistan’s “defiance” of American pressure and Washington’s inability to reverse Islamabad’s decision and seeming unwillingness to make it pay a heavy price.5 In East Asia, India’s future actions will affect China’s strategic choices and could also reopen the door to wider nuclear and missile cooperation with Pakistan, which would affect and be affected by India’s reaction. China’s decisions will also impact decision-making in Japan, whose non-nuclear status is being tested in the context of contemplated changes to Tokyo’s post-war constitution. Finally, developments in South Asia could impact progress toward a unified and nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

The United States must not be perceived as dismissing these concerns in light of the priorities of the anti-terror campaign but, instead, adapt its approach to the new realities.

The Longer Term

To build stability in South Asia, Pakistan needs to keep its word in ending support for militants, preventing infiltration across the Line of Control, dismantling terrorist training camps, and taking other steps to crack down on terrorists. Perhaps most importantly, President Musharraf must take full advantage of the current international support he has to address his country’s deepening crisis of governance, including improving living and educational standards and making a commitment to democracy. Addressing Kashmir will require difficult compromises for Pakistan down the road. But painful tradeoffs can be compensated with the understanding that the best guarantor of Kashmiri dignity is a prosperous and stable Pakistan committed to the rule of law.

India cannot afford to reject direct talks with Pakistan about Kashmir for much longer. Washington should build on New Delhi’s new openness to internationalization of the issue by sustaining an active third-party role, with the backing of the world community, in pushing India and Pakistan toward a political process.

Finally, the United States must work with both countries to undertake measures to reduce the risk of war and escalation between nuclear neighbors. Crisis diplomacy has averted war in South Asia again, but the underlying problems remain. Sustained American diplomatic engagement needs to supplant crisis diplomacy as Washington’s main tool for reducing the risk of war between these two nuclear nations. Otherwise, if and when the next Indian-Pakistani crisis erupts, we may not be so lucky.

1. For a detailed account, see Kanti P. Bajpai, ed., Brasstacks and Beyond: Perceptions and Management of Crisis in South Asia (University of Illinois, 1995).
2. Bruce Reidel, “American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House,” Center for the Advanced Study of India, Policy Paper Series, May 2002.
3. Statement of Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Karl F. Inderfurth before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, May 13, 1998.
4. For a comprehensive list of recommendations, see Lewis A. Dunn, “Balancing Nuclear Security and Nonproliferation in South Asia,” in Lee Feinstein, ed., A New Equation: U.S. Policy Toward India and Pakistan After September 11, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Working Paper No. 27, May 2002.
5. See Ibrahim A. Karawan, “Nuclear Temptations: The Middle East as a Case Study,” paper prepared for the 42nd Stanley Foundation Strategies for Peace Conference, Airlie House, Virginia, October 2002.

Lee Feinstein, former deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, was a member of the deputy secretary of state’s team charged with developing the U.S. response to the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan. He will join the Council on Foreign Relations as a senior fellow in July.