Originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune, February 18, 2003

While world leaders are preoccupied with Iraq and North Korea, relations between South Asia's nuclear rivals are deteriorating. India recently expelled Pakistan's acting ambassador in New Delhi, accusing him of funneling money to anti-India politicians in Kashmir. Pakistan retaliated by expelling the most senior Indian diplomat in Islamabad. The two neighbors are now left with low-level diplomatic contact.

Meanwhile, Indian and U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of reviving the flow of militants into Indian-controlled territory after several months of restraint that followed the threat of war last year. If this pattern of hostility continues, it is likely that Indian and Pakistani forces will again be involved in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation when the spring thaw in the Himalayas makes fighting possible.

The United States has periodically engaged in shuttle diplomacy to keep the two nuclear-armed rivals from going to war, most notably in 2002, when both sides mobilized more than a million troops along their 2,000-kilometer frontier after a failed terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. But the region needs a sustained peace process. Without it, the cycle of bluster and violence could escalate to unpredictable levels.

Frustrated by its inability to secure an Indian commitment to negotiate the future of Kashmir, Pakistan could continue down the slippery slope of using Islamic militancy as an instrument of policy. Sufficiently provoked, India could decide to follow Israel's example of dealing with the Palestinians or the U.S. example of dealing with Iraq.

The problem, of course, is that Pakistan is neither as weak as the Palestinians nor as vulnerable as Iraq. It has a sizable arsenal of nuclear weapons and a demonstrated ballistic missile capability. It is also a strategically located American ally.

At the heart of the conflict is mutual suspicion that each country wants to divide and destroy the other. Pakistan lives in dread of being "erased from the world map" - a phrase used by India's defense minister recently to describe what would happen in the event of nuclear war. Both sides refuse to seek a long-term solution to their pathological antipathy.

Before initiating a peace process, the United States should try to prevent an arms race. Pakistan has re-entered the international arms market as a buyer. India wants to expand the overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons that it already enjoys.

From 1997 to 2001, India was the fifth largest importer of arms in the world, after Taiwan, China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. India has several major deals in the works with the United States, Russia, Israel and France that could make it the second biggest arms importer. In addition, India's Defense Research and Development Organization is engaged in indigenous development of weapons and systems. Economic problems limit Pakistan's ability to match India's arsenal. Pakistan's defense budget stands at around $3.3 billion, which is $10 billion less than India's. Of course, India has security concerns beyond Pakistan, notably in relation to China, whereas Pakistan's defense is primarily India-specific.

China, which supplies one-third of Pakistan's weapons, finds it useful to help Pakistan in keeping India bogged down in South Asia.

But in the absence of dialogue or a sustained peace process, India's decision to enlarge the military imbalance is driving hard-liners in Pakistan to press for further support of Islamic militants in Kashmir.

Some experts in India have argued that India should spend Pakistan into the ground, much as the United States crippled the Soviet Union. Because Pakistan has a much smaller economy, it cannot compete with India weapon system for weapon system, so it relies on nuclear deterrence and unconventional warfare. The one area where it has competed successfully, and possibly even managed parity, is in nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. India's secular identity and the evolution of Islamic Pakistan toward sustainable democracy are being undermined by their military rivalry and tension. Security concerns have made Pakistan's military stronger than other national institutions and independent of civilian control. Hindu chauvinism directed against religious minorities, especially Muslims, is on the rise in India.

The growing power of Islamists in Pakistan and Hindu ideologues in India makes the region more dangerous, adding to the list of reasons why the United States and other concerned powers should give it more constructive attention.