February 18, 2011

In 1914, a terrorist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo - unleashing geopolitical forces and World War I. Today, while the United States rightly worries about al-Qaeda targeting the homeland, the most dangerous threat may be another terrorist flash point on the horizon.

Lashkar-i-Taiba holds the match that could spark a conflagration between nuclear-armed historic rivals India and Pakistan. Lashkar-i-Taiba is a Frankenstein's monster of the Pakistani government's creation 20 years ago. It has diverse financial networks and well-trained and well-armed cadres that have struck Indian targets from Mumbai to Kabul. It collaborates with the witches' brew of terrorist groups in Pakistan, including al-Qaeda, and has demonstrated global jihadist ambitions. It is merely a matter of time before Lashkar-i-Taiba attacks again.

Significant terrorist attacks in India, against Parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai in 2008, brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. The countries remain deeply distrustful of each other. Another major strike against Indian targets in today's tinderbox environment could lead to a broader, more devastating conflict.

The United States should be directing political and diplomatic capital to prevent such a conflagration. The meeting between Indian and Pakistani officials in Bhutan this month - their first high-level sit-down since last summer - set the stage for restarting serious talks on the thorny issue of Kashmir.

Washington has only so much time. Indian officials are increasingly dissatisfied with Pakistan's attempts to constrain Lashkar-i-Taiba and remain convinced that Pakistani intelligence supports the group. An Indian intelligence report concluded last year that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate was involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and late last year the Indian government raised security levels in anticipation of strikes. India is unlikely to show restraint in the event of another attack.

Lashkar-i-Taiba may also feel emboldened since the assassination in early January of a moderate Punjabi governor muted Pakistani moderates and underscored the weakness of the government in Islamabad. The group does not want peace talks to resume, so it might act to derail progress. Elements of the group may see conflict with India as in their interest, especially after months of unrest in Kashmir. And the Pakistani government may not be able to control the monster it created.

A war in South Asia would be disastrous not just for the United States. In addition to the human devastation, it would destroy efforts to bring stability to the region and to disrupt terrorist havens in western Pakistan. Many of the 140,000 Pakistani troops fighting militants in the west would be redeployed east to battle Indian ground forces. This would effectively convert tribal areas bordering Afghanistan into a playing field for militants. Worse, the Pakistani government might be induced to make common cause with Lashkar-i-Taiba, launching a proxy fight against India. Such a war would also fuel even more destructive violent extremism within Pakistan.

In the worst-case scenario, an attack could lead to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. India's superior conventional forces threaten Pakistan, and Islamabad could resort to nuclear weapons were a serious conflict to erupt. Indeed, The Post reported that Pakistan's nuclear weapons and capabilities are set to surpass those of India.

So what can the United States do to ratchet down tensions?

We need to build trust, confidence and consistent lines of communications between India and Pakistan. This begins by helping both parties pave the way for a constructive dialogue on the status of Kashmir. Steps toward progress would include pushing for real accountability of figures responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the handing over of wanted Lashkar-i-Taiba facilitators such as Indian crime lord Dawood Ibrahim.

The United States also needs to disrupt the terrorist group's fundraising and planning. The focus should be on unearthing names and disrupting cells outside Pakistan that are tied to Lashkar-i-Taiba, which involves pressuring Islamabad for the names of Westerners who may have trained at Lashkar-i-Taiba camps.

This is among the thorniest U.S. national security and counterterrorism problems. It requires officials to focus on imagining the "aftershocks" of a terrorist attack and act before the threat manifests - even as other national security issues such as unrest in the Middle East boil over. Yet without political attention, diplomatic capital and sustained preventative actions, a critical region could descend into chaos.

History shows that the actions of a small group of committed terrorists, such as the Black Hand in 1914 or al-Qaeda in 2001 - can spark broader wars. History could repeat itself with Lashkar-i-Taiba. Asymmetric threats that serve as flash points for broader geopolitical crises may be the greatest threat we face from terrorism.

The writer, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009.