Note to readers: An earlier version of this essay was published at ForeignAffairs.com on January 16th.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will inherit rising nuclear dangers in five regions of the globe. Every one of them could get worse under his watch. Even before taking office, he has challenged Russia with a nuclear arms race it cannot win, while provoking China over Taiwan. He has threatened to rip up the Obama Administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran, even though it could prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons for 15 years. North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, has threatened to disregard the incoming president’s warning not to flight-test a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). If that doesn’t sound bad enough, look no further than the subcontinent, where Pakistan and India are engaged in an intense nuclear competition with little likelihood of slowing down.
In Indian-ruled Kashmir, New Delhi has lost the battle of hearts and minds in Muslim-majority areas, where security forces are in lock-down mode. In September 2016, after a series of terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based militant groups, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi carried out “surgical strikes” across the Kashmir divide. At the same time, he made thinly veiled threats about Pakistan’s water supply and territorial integrity.
Pakistan, which has suffered more from terrorism than India over the last eight years, claims not to distinguish between “good” and “bad” terrorists, but its actions suggest otherwise. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services continue to allow militant groups such as Lashkar e-Taiba and Jaish e-Mohammed to use Pakistani territory as a safe haven from which to carry out attacks against India. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is also reluctant to take on anti-India and violent sectarian groups that are based in Punjab, his party’s home base.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban leadership and Haqqani network have also found safe havens in Pakistan to plan and carry out operations against the Afghan government. As long as the government in Kabul remains hostile to Islamabad and friendly toward New Delhi, it is unlikely that military leaders in Rawalpindi will change course. The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations used carrots and sticks in hopes of inducing such a change, and have little to show for their efforts.
Pakistan is therefore caught in a self-made dilemma. The militant groups that ruin its international standing also provide perceived leverage against hostile neighbors. Shutting down these groups would require very difficult military campaigns. And so, Pakistan must contend with a hostile India to the east, a hostile Afghan government to the west, and wider regional isolation. When it was Islamabad’s turn to host a conclave of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in November 2016, only the Maldives planned to attend before the meeting was postponed.
Geopolitics and economics are also working against Pakistan. U.S. military assistance to Pakistan is winding down, reflecting a diminished American military presence in Afghanistan and Washington’s grievance over Pakistan’s duplicity on terrorism. Pakistanis view America’s shift toward India as a betrayal. Conflicting narratives of duplicity and betrayal leave little room for improved relations, especially when Washington’s ties with New Delhi continue to improve, thanks to the attractiveness of the Indian market and a desire to help India counter China’s military buildup. Pakistan’s sense of unease has grown with Donald Trump’s habit of painting Islamic terrorism in broad-brush strokes. China’s decision to invest heavily in an economic corridor across Pakistan to the Arabian Sea is viewed as a lifeline, but not a counterweight to Washington’s embrace of New Delhi.
As Pakistan’s sense of isolation grows and as the conventional military balance shifts even further in India’s favor, Islamabad is relying increasingly on Chinese military help and on nuclear weapons for deterrence. Its nuclear arsenal is growing faster than India’s, with the probable capacity to produce 15 or more warheads a year, adding more nuclear weapons every year than North Korea may have accumulated to date. While India is moving to close this gap, Pakistan is planning to compete even harder with longer-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles to be delivered in the air, on the ground, and at sea, as well as with tactical nuclear weapons. Since testing nuclear devices in 1998, India and Pakistan have together flight-tested on average one new type of missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon every year.
The buildup of nuclear capabilities has accompanied greater risk-taking. One year after the nuclear tests, India and Pakistan fought a limited conventional war, which was instigated when then-Pakistani Army Chief Pervez Musharraf authorized advances across the Kashmir divide. Musharraf’s gambit nullified a plan for improved relations that both countries’ prime ministers had crafted. The resulting war in the heights above Kargil made clear that hopes for stability based on offsetting nuclear deterrence were fanciful. Two dramatic attacks by militant groups against India subsequently followed—one in 2001 against the Indian parliament building, which prompted both armies to mobilize, and the other in 2008, against luxury hotels, the central train station, and other targets in Mumbai. There has been no sustained, substantive diplomatic engagement between India and Pakistan since the Mumbai attacks.
Against this backdrop, even modest downturns in relations between India and Pakistan warrant attention. Ever since the 2008 Mumbai carnage, cross-border attacks have been modest—not enough to prompt a major crisis, but sufficient to block New Delhi’s overtures to improve relations. In May 2014, two days after Modi invited Sharif to attend his inauguration, Lashkar-e Taiba cadres attacked the Indian consulate in Herat. In July 2015, 17 days after the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries released a joint statement announcing their readiness to “discuss all outstanding issues” and condemning “terrorism in all its forms,” Pakistan-based militants attacked a police station in Gurdaspur, killing seven. And in January 2016, eight days after Modi’s surprise Christmas Day visit to Lahore bearing birthday and wedding gifts for Sharif and his family, the Indian Air Force Base at Pathankot was attacked, followed the next day by an attack on the Indian consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif. And in June 2016, as Kashmir boiled over due to the killing of a prominent anti-Indian social media crusader, terrorists attacked Indian army camps at Uri and Nagrota.
This familiar sequence of events prompted Modi to adopt a harder line. In August 2016, speaking at the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi on India’s Independence Day, he made a pointed reference to Baluchistan, Pakistan’s most restive province, implying that India would foment unrest there. After the attack at Uri, Modi stepped up threats over water sharing under the Indus Waters Treaty, declaring that “blood and water cannot flow simultaneously.” Implied Indian threats against Pakistan’s water resources and national cohesion are not new, but when delivered by the prime minister himself, they took on new meaning. In the view of Pakistan’s national security establishment and public opinion, Modi’s statements merely revealed his true colors as a Hindu nationalist zealot bent on subjugating, if not breaking up, Pakistan.
After the attack against the military camp at Uri, Modi decided to carry out and then publicize commando raids across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir. Such raids are not new, but advertising them is, increasing pressure on Pakistan to up the ante. (Pakistan’s military denies that these cross-border raids even occurred, but Washington has concluded otherwise.) Throughout the fall and early winter, casualties mounted, with both sides stepping up fire across this divide, including the use of artillery. A ceasefire took hold in conjunction with the elevation of a new Pakistan Army chief in late November, but such ceasefires are no longer durable.
For now, with India and Pakistan at loggerheads, another flashpoint and test of wills might be avoided, since there is no need for anti-India groups and their backers in Pakistan to block improved relations. Irony is, however, an insufficient basis for stability when emotions are so raw and when Kashmiri opposition to Indian rule is so intense. Sooner or later, there will be another strike against India originating from Pakistan. The question will then become whether pieces other than pawns along the Kashmir divide are moved on the chessboard.
If New Delhi chooses to retaliate, there will be many rungs available for escalation, beginning with intensified, quick hit-and-return operations within the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. These dynamics may not favor India, however, as Pakistan has more lucrative targets—including an air base and the Hindu-majority area of Jammu—to aim at within these confines. Indian strikes might thus be contemplated elsewhere. One key escalation threshold would be the use of airpower, perhaps initially at standoff distances. At this point, knights and bishops would be moved on the chessboard. If Modi takes moves his queen by diverting Pakistan’s water and stepping up threats to its territorial integrity, hostilities are unlikely to be confined to Kashmir.
New Delhi still has not been able to figure out how to deal with Pakistan’s non-state actors, while military leaders in Rawalpindi can’t figure out how to live without them. Friction is growing alongside nuclear stockpiles and missiles. As they mount, no one can confidently predict what the new normal for violent interaction between India and Pakistan will be. If push comes to shove, it falls to the U.S. President, Secretary of State, and national security adviser to serve as crisis managers. None of these individuals in the incoming Trump Administration seems suited for this crucial role.