NEW YORK - While India and Pakistan seem to have stopped bombing one another, the causes behind the cross-border tensions aren’t going away any time soon. The two nations are nuclear-armed; have large conventional armed forces; have had four serious wars since they became independent in 1947; and have enormous cultural and religious antipathy. This is a prescription for a disaster, and yet the confrontation is flying below the international radar — well below North Korea, Brexit, China-U.S. trade confrontations, Iran and even the “yellow vests” of France. A full-blown war in Kashmir is a very real possibility.
When I was the supreme allied commander of NATO, the most important mission of the alliance was dealing with terrorism in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our Pakistani partners continued to support many of the radical elements of the Taliban. They were afraid of creeping Indian influence, and much preferred a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan to a more Western-leaning and independent Afghani government. I dealt often with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army. He frequently came to NATO’s political headquarters in Brussels to brief the combined military leadership of the alliance on the key threat Pakistan faced several years ago — internal terrorism. Yet always hovering over our conversations was the Pakistani military’s deepest concern: India.
The most recent crisis was set off in mid-February when a Pakistani terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, detonated a suicide bomb in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing 40 Indian soldiers. It was the deadliest attack on security forces since that insurgency began in earnest decades ago. While the Pakistani government denied involvement in the bombing, India believes it was aware of the incident, and therefore responded with significant airstrikes into Pakistan. Two Indian fighter jets were shot down and a pilot captured. There was an unmistakable echo of the 1947 and 1965 Kashmir conflicts, in which tens of thousands died.
The fragile cease-fire in place for two decades is fraying. Partly this is the result of domestic politics in India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected on a Hindu nationalist agenda, is up for re-election in April and May. After the Indian bombing of Pakistani territory, a popular hashtag in India became #Indiastrikesback. This is rare behavior, given that Indian armed forces have not otherwise crossed the so-called Line of Control between the nations since 1971. Former Indian Air Vice Marshall Arjun Subramanian told me, “At the strategic level, the strikes have signaled a heightened resolve on the part of the Modi government to change the response matrix in the aftermath of a confirmed jihadi attack from safe havens in Pakistan.”
Most worrisome, of course, are the significant nuclear arsenals of the combatants. Each has roughly 150 missiles, although only India has a submarine-based ballistic missile capability and thus a true nuclear triad (land, air and sea). Pakistan is developing sea-launched cruise missiles to counter that Indian threat. India has adopted a “no first use” doctrine, although Pakistan — which has smaller conventional forces and thus potentially the need for a more ambiguous doctrine — has not made an equivalent pledge. Paradoxically, the fact that both sides want to avoid a nuclear conflict has probably prevented an escalation on the conventional side during recent crises.
In past conflicts, the United States has played a mediating role. But today Pakistan is more inclined to work with China. India has strong relations with both the U.S. and Russia, but is unlikely to turn to either, so as not to appear beholden to any peer “great state.” This tracks with the tendency of the Trump administration to let nations work things out themselves. Other than National Security Advisor John Bolton’s sensible comment that the U.S. supports India’s right to self-defense, the administration is staying on the sidelines. Complicating the picture is that Washington is trying to enlist Pakistani aid in ending the long war in Afghanistan by reining in the Taliban.
What the U.S. can do most effectively is to quietly encourage both sides to step back from escalation — which Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan did by releasing the captured Indian jet pilot unharmed. We should also offer our intelligence capabilities to both India and Pakistan as each of them deal with the disruptive terrorist groups operating from Pakistani soil — Jaish-e-Mohammad and the even more deadly Lashkar-e-Taiba. The U.S. could also encourage other mediation by allies and international organizations, in particular Saudi Arabia, which reportedly was influential in the release of the Indian pilot.
As Hussein Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., recently pointed out, Pakistan in on the verge of an economic crisis. While the Khan government has tried to defuse the situation, in part by appealing to the International Monetary Fund, internal pressures are building. Make no mistake: With Pakistan’s economic plight and the upcoming elections in India, South Asia is in a situation in which a military miscalculation, perhaps even a nuclear one, is real possibility.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist James Stavridis is a former U.S. Navy admiral.