CANBERRA – Of the multiple international crises bubbling away in the world’s various trouble spots, potentially the most dangerous is the spike in tensions between India and Pakistan. The reason is simple: It could cross the threshold to become a nuclear war. Conventional wars can kill large numbers of soldiers and civilians of the conflict parties but leave others largely untouched. By contrast, if India and Pakistan fought a nuclear war using only a fraction of their estimated 230 nuclear warheads, it could leave up to 2 billion people dead around the world through direct casualties, blast, heat, radiation and nuclear winter effects on global crop production and food distribution networks.
Because the costs of a nuclear war would be catastrophic, it is inconceivable that either government would pursue a deliberate strategy of courting a direct military confrontation. Yet arms control analysts have long identified the subcontinent as among the likeliest of global nuclear flashpoints.
How then might they end up fighting a nuclear war? There are several pathways through miscalculations, rogue launches, misinformation and jihadi provocations. The backdrop to these unintended and unwanted pathways to a nuclear war is the state of extreme tension in their relations where minor incidents can quickly spin out of the ability of either government to control.
On Sept. 29, Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh announced that special forces had attacked and destroyed seven “launchpads” in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, killing over 30 militants with no loss of Indian life. The action, although officially justified in the language of preemption of an imminent attack, was in reality reprisal for an attack by Pakistan-based infiltrators on an Indian Army base in Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed 18 soldiers.
Uri might well mark an inflection point in the evolution of India’s Pakistan policy. In a vicious case of blowback, Pakistan’s own terror toll from home-based jihadis has climbed steadily higher than India’s. This has not been sufficient to convince the military and intelligence agencies that control Pakistan’s security policy and policy toward New Delhi, to liquidate their carefully nurtured jihadi “assets” against India.
India’s cross-border military raids by special operations forces were preceded by political and diplomatic offensives and threats of economic retaliation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested Pakistan’s people should ask their government why, having become independent together, today India exports software while Pakistan exports terror? In almost all incidents of international terrorism, he said, the perpetrators either came from Pakistan or settled there afterward, as with Osama bin Laden.
In exceptionally sharp language at the United Nations, Indian officials painted Pakistan as the host of the Ivy League of terrorism. India succeeded also in getting the planned South Asian regional summit meeting in Islamabad canceled. And it has put on the table the threats to abrogate Pakistan’s most-favored-nation trade status and terminate the Indus Waters Treaty for sharing the river’s bounty with water-stressed Pakistan.
Either side could gravely miscalculate the other’s tolerance threshold for eschewing caution in favor of direct military action and the consequences of a strategic delusion are catastrophic when nuclear weapons are involved. India’s retaliatory strikes along the Line of Control in Kashmir shows that its tolerance threshold for serial attacks by Pakistan-backed infiltrators has been breached. But can India in turn be confident of an accurate assessment of what the Pakistan military’s red line is for responding to India’s “surgical strikes” by escalating either horizontally, opening new fronts for skirmishes; or vertically, by increasing the intensity of provocations?
Analysts have been anticipating water wars for decades. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif warns that restrictions on Pakistan’s access to the Indus River water would constitute an act of war. Given how vital that water is to Pakistan, India would be foolish to dismiss the warning as yet another idle threat.
India’s policy of “strategic restraint” was misread by Pakistan’s generals as a successful Pakistani policy of nuclear neutering of the arch enemy. While nuclear rivalry induces extra caution, it does not confer immunity against targeted military retaliation. Yet Pakistan’s military establishment seems to have convinced itself to the contrary. Pakistan had exploited the nuclear overhang to nurture jihadi and terrorist proxies to inflict serial attacks across the border. The risk of a nuclear escalation was also used to try to blackmail other countries into putting pressure on India to solve the Kashmir dispute or risk a nuclear war. India has effectively called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.
To offset India’s huge conventional advantages stemming from massive size disparities in population, GDP and defense forces, Pakistan has been building and talking up the deterrent value of its tactical nuclear weapons to be deployed on the forward edge of the battlefield. To be operational, this necessarily involves delegation of the power to launch nuclear weapons to battlefield commanders. Rogue military commanders could provoke a crisis through unauthorized acts that senior officers are unable to contain in a febrile nationalist atmosphere.
Will Pakistan’s soon to retire army chief feel humiliated enough to authorize still riskier actions inside India? Alternatively, what if the new army chief proves more risk-prone?
Alternatively, mass suicide-courting jihadis could provoke a crisis in the tinderbox state of bilateral relations with a plentiful supply of willing Pakistani recruits and soft Indian targets, with the goal of generating an irreversible spiral of escalation.
As well as rogue and humiliated military commanders and martyrdom-seeking terrorists, irresponsible politicians should never be discounted as triggers for war. Politicians in both countries may see opportunities for major domestic gains by mocking a policy of responsible restraint as cowardice: Nationalistic chest thumping never lacks for a political constituency in any country.
Finally, discontent in the Kashmir valley could intensify and lead to serial crises. No Indian government has thus far shown the requisite political will to solve Kashmir as a crisis in Indian federalism, or the diplomatic deftness to negotiate a solution with Pakistan. Nor has Modi been able to prevent hard-line Hindus from acting as roaming vigilante squads enforcing Hindu dietary restrictions, intimidating and even killing those they suspect of defiling Hindu beliefs. Can he contain acts of Hindu triumphalism against Indian Muslims?
Any spread of disaffection to India’s 150 million Muslims in general could make the country completely ungovernable and open up a vast scope for Pakistan to deepen discontent inside India.
The final sobering thought is that the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan is conceptually, politically and strategically deeply intertwined with China as a nuclear power.
Ramesh Thakur, a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.