ISLAMABAD — Weeks of lingering hopes for a limited improvement in relations between South Asia’s two large nuclear-armed neighbors, India and Pakistan, were shattered in less than two minutes when an Indian fighter jet shot down a Pakistani naval patrol aircraft.
All the 16 passengers aboard the Pakistani plane were instantly killed. Delhi justified the action as a necessary step to secure its territorial limits from foreign intrusion, while Islamabad denied that the aircraft had ventured over hostile terrain. While describing the shooting as a “cowardly act,” Pakistan promised to do everything possible to preserve its territorial integrity.
Given South Asia’s hostile environment, such exchanges are hardly comforting for the rest of the world, which is eager to see the two nuclear-armed countries stay away from the prospect of war. Despite international calls urging both sides to show restraint, the latest incident is unlikely to be the last of its kind as the world’s two newest nuclear powers continue to score military points. Earlier this summer, the two countries came to the brink of war, despite international calls to show restraint, amid intense fighting along the border of the disputed state of Kashmir.
Such flareups have their roots in a 52-year history. India and Pakistan were born with a problem in 1947, when Pakistan contested the division of predominantly Muslim Kashmir. Eventually, Pakistani-backed fighters successfully won freedom for one-third of Kashmir while the rest remained under Delhi’s control.
Fifty-two years later, there is little space for periodic incursions or conflicts, given the nuclear reality staring India, Pakistan and the rest of the world right in the face. At a time when the tragedy of Hiroshima has recently been commemorated once again, the nuclear option is still a nonusable one.
Concepts such as mutually assured destruction or first-strike capability may sound great as options to hawks eager to argue that there is a logic to considering the utility of the nuclear option. But such concepts are best left on the blackboard, as a powerful reminder that immense human tragedy is bound to follow if the “nuclear mistake” is ever contemplated again, especially when backed by far more powerful and infinitely more devastating technology, than that in place during World War II.
The reality of Indo-Pakistan relations is also a cause for alarm in light of the view taken by many analysts that the two South Asian countries could never afford to go to all-out war. This view is driven by the belief that the threat of a nuclear catastrophe would just be too powerful to deter the two from “mad adventurism.”
But this summer’s most compelling lesson has been that there’s no dearth of opportunities created by recurring hostilities, either by choice or accident. The chance of escalation from one isolated incident or the other is too profound to be taken lightly.
For the international community, the options may be limited, especially as the choice at the end of the day to press the proverbial button lies with Delhi or Islamabad. But there’s little reason for global complacency, mainly because the world is not without options.
International diplomacy, which has so far in part centered mainly around strategic goals in an effort to convince India and Pakistan to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, needs to broaden efforts in three important areas.
First, India and Pakistan, the victims of a historical tragedy, need to be pushed toward a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, which has haunted prospects for peace for far too long. A bridging of the gap must include not just new peace initiatives but, vitally, new peace formulas. Delhi and Islamabad have remained bogged in traditional positions, such as one denying scope for any international involvement on the grounds that Kashmir is a domestic affair, while the other pushing for the implementation of U.N. resolutions from the distant past. A break from the past is essential for a new beginning.
Second, a peace initiative must take closer stock of the two countries’ international economic linkages, with a serious view to using those as leverage to back a new peace process. Foot-dragging must be countered with the threat of tangible costs in terms of restrictions of international trade and investment flows.
Finally, the dispute that has become even more perilous with the introduction of the nuclear dimension, must be viewed as a people’s problem rather than a conflict between two states. India and Pakistan, home to more than a fifth of the world’s population, have already used far too many of their limited resources for their arms race. In Indian-controlled Kashmir, the human tragedy has been immense, with literally thousands of homes ruined because a family member or two were victims in a decade-long era of violence, as separatist guerillas have fought Indian troops. Irrespective of who started the tragic episode, violence is only going to breed further violence.
While there will be plenty of opportunities for international complacency and meaningless lip service, South Asia’s se-curity problem can hardly be ignored for much longer.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.