United States Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats expects challenges facing the South Asian region to grow in 2019 due to elections in Afghanistan and India, large-scale Taliban attacks and "Pakistan’s recalcitrance in dealing with militant groups".
In a public testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday, Coats presented a threat assessment report outlining significant global security threats facing the US.
The National Intelligence director in his remarks predicted that in the coming year, "militant groups in Pakistan will continue to take advantage of their safe haven there to plan and conduct attacks in neighbouring countries and possibly beyond."
Coats' report holds Pakistan responsible for supporting and providing terrorists safe haven "to plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan, including against US interests". It also accuses Islamabad of "using some groups as policy tools and confronting only the militant groups that directly threaten Pakistan".
The report claims that Pakistan's "narrow approach to counter-terrorism cooperation [...] almost certainly will frustrate US counter-terrorism efforts against the Taliban".
The comments come at a time when Pakistan is playing a pivotal role in aiding talks between the Taliban and the US in order to further the Afghan peace process and end the 17-year-long war. Islamabad has consistently denied allegations that it provides safe haven to terrorists or engages in cross-border terrorism.
The report predicts that neither the Taliban nor Kabul will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in the Afghan war in 2019 "if coalition support remains at current levels".
It notes that the Taliban has stepped up large scale attacks although Afghan forces "generally have secured cities and other government strongholds".
"Afghan security suffers from a large number of forces being tied down in defensive missions, mobility shortfalls, and a lack of reliable forces to hold recaptured territory," the report adds.
Concern over Pakistan's nuclear programme
Coats in his remarks before the Senate committee had said: "We remain concerned about Pakistan's continued development control of nuclear weapons," but did not express any concern about India's nuclear programme, although the report notes that India had, in 2018, conducted its first deployment of a nuclear-powered submarine armed with nuclear missiles.
The 2019 report mentions that "Pakistan continues to develop new types of nuclear weapons, including short-range tactical weapons, sea-based cruise missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, and longer range ballistic missiles."
A 2016 Harvard Kennedy report on prevention of nuclear terrorism states that India's nuclear security measures "may be weaker than those of Pakistan". However, the risk of theft across the border "appears to be moderate", while in Pakistan it "appears to be high".
The overall threat from weapons of mass destruction is expected to continue growing in 2019, according to the US threat report, which claims that Pakistan and India's growing nuclear arsenals "increase the risk of a nuclear security incident in South Asia". It adds that new types of nuclear weapons "will introduce new risks for escalation dynamics and security in the region".
'Pak-India tensions to persist in 2019'
The report speculates that strained relations between Pakistan and India will persist "at least through May 2019, the deadline for the Indian election, and probably beyond".
It attributes this supposition to cross-border terrorism, firing across the Line of Control, divisive national elections in India, and Islamabad's perception of its position with the US relative to India.
"Continued terrorist attacks and cross-border firing in Kashmir have hardened each country's position and reduced their political will to seek rapprochement," the report says, adding: "Political manoeuvring resulting from the Indian national elections probably will further constrain near-term opportunities for improving ties."
The Indian elections are also expected to play their part in stoking communal violence within the country which "could alienate Indian Muslims and allow Islamist terrorist groups in India to expand their influence," the report warns.
Furthermore, the US expects relations between India and China to remain tense "despite efforts on both sides to manage tensions since the border standoff in 2017, elevating the risk of unintentional escalation".
Although Chinese and Indian leadership held an informal summit in April 2018 to defuse tensions and normalise relations, border issues were not addressed, the report notes. "Misperceptions of military movements or construction might result in tensions escalating into armed conflict."