Michael KreponThe Next War or the Last War in South Asia?

Two fundamentally different nuclear futures are conceivable on the subcontinent. One is surprisingly pacific, even without conflict resolution between India and Pakistan. The other is deeply tragic – the worst case of a limited conventional war crossing the nuclear threshold. This choice is worthy of discussion with Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, who is in Washington this week.

The classic, radioactive scenario spools out from a big explosion on Indian soil that is traced back to a group in Pakistan, like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, with prior links to the ISI. Both militaries thereafter begin to re-position themselves for a limited war. Pakistan ostentatiously moves missiles around to warn India and spin up Washington to engage in crisis management. New Delhi follows suit. A missile or two is flight-tested. Pakistan’s short-range, nuclear-capable missiles, Nasr, move closer to likely contact points between the two armies, clarifying deterrence messages and raising the stakes for Indian military engagement.

In this scenario, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is made of sterner stuff than his more reflective predecessors. He authorizes a military riposte. A mushroom cloud is detected on Pakistani soil. Maybe it’s an accident, maybe not. Perhaps it’s a result of an Indian air strike on a Nasr battery.

The U.S. crisis-management playbook, which is predicated on New Delhi’s ambivalence or disinclination to fight, goes out the window. A radioactive battlefield and the possibility of prompt escalation foreclose a trip to the region by the U.S. Secretary of State; the choreography of subsequent visitors is put on hold. Commercial aircraft keep their distance from the region, while embassies desperately make plans to evacuate their nationals from a war zone.

In these chaotic circumstances, national leaders who have failed to engage constructively prior to this impasse must now try to figure out what happened and to prevent more mushroom clouds. Confident assumptions of nuclear deterrence will by now have turned a sharp corner, with prospects of widespread confusion and panic ahead. Crucial decisions must be made hurriedly. The unthinkable has happened. This fraught scenario has been played out in many war games that typically end badly.

* * *

Now let’s try to imagine a very different scenario. Let’s focus on the continued absence of a triggering event of Indian soil. It’s been seven long years since the 2008 Mumbai assaults. The group behind this assault, the LeT, is old news. Its leaders are living sedate lives in comfortable surroundings. Many hotheads have shifted allegiances and moved on to the Middle East, where the action is. Young men itching for a fight have no shortage of options.

The calculus of decision for Rawalpindi has changed. Pakistan wins no prizes for another big explosion in India. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are fighting to clear their homeland of the remnants of the Pakistani Taliban they helped spawn. There’s no good reason for another crisis with India. Even if New Delhi backs down after another attack, it’s the same old story line of Pakistan either being complicit in a major terrorist attack or being incompetent to stop it. Pakistan’s image and economy take big hits. Diplomatic sparring with India has again increased over Kashmir, but barriers and fences across the Kashmir divide limit how much Pakistan can up the ante in the Valley. The stakes in Afghanistan are higher, but Afghanistan is a mess.

Now envision Modi’s calculations. His star is beginning to fade. A splendid little war with Pakistan entails great risk, and will surely mess up prospects for economic growth. This calculus led his predecessors to stand down in previous crises and win without a shot being fired. New Delhi chose not to respond to previous explosions even before Pakistan’s public embrace of tactical nuclear weapons. The existence of these dangerous weapons could now reinforce Modi’s calculus of restraint.

This alternative scenario sounds too good to be true: a Pakistan that doesn’t spark another major crisis on the subcontinent, and an India that would rather grow its economy than fight a limited conventional war with Pakistan. These circumstances won’t lead to better relations as long as Modi’s government refuses to engage Pakistan except on terms that no Pakistani leader can accept; but neither does non-engagement become a predicate for war.

A scenario in which war is no longer an option on the subcontinent also suggests that when New Delhi is ready to improve ties with Pakistan, positive results might be achievable. Nevertheless, the bad news scenario remains in play, even as the star of the LeT is fading. And Modi remains a mystery, especially under fire.

Have India and Pakistan fought their last war? Tipping the scales toward peace requires the Obama administration to press General Sharif to prevent events that could trigger the next war, while pressing Prime Minister Modi to re-engage with Pakistan.


  1. Peace Maker (History)

    A good article from the point of view that Mr Krepon has suggested that Mr Modi should re-engage with Pakistan.
    Obama administration should also Prime Minister Modi to give up sub conventional warfare against Pakistan. It appears from this article as if the terrorist attack in India enjoyed quasi-Pakistani State’s support.
    Terrorism in South Asia was introduced by India in 1971 when Pakistan became the foremost victim of low-intensity warfare which New Delhi waged against Islamabad, leading to the loss of East Pakistan, a historical fact which the current Indian leadership has publicly accepted and owned.
    More recently, Pakistan has endured many tragedies much bigger than Mumbai attacks, which Islamabad has condemned. As a frontline State in the global war on terrorism Pakistan has played an instrumental role in decimating the leadership of Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
    The U.S. – as Pakistan’s main ally in war on terror – lost around 3000 lives in the 9/11 attacks and Pakistan has lost over 70,000 of its citizens and soldiers.
    Islamabad can teach the virtues of eradicating terrorism rather than getting lessons. No other state knows the value or the necessity of eliminating terrorists more than Islamabad and its rapid and major achievements in the ongoing Zarb-e-Azb are an evidence of Pakistan’s firm resolve to eliminate this menace.
    The current debate holds that an act of terrorism in India would oblige it to wage limited conventional war against Pakistan without waiting to verifiably ascertain State-involvement.
    Islamabad has given evidence of Indian involvement on Pakistani soil to the UN and the U.S.Even BBC had recently given evidence of Indian funding militancy and lawlessness in Karachi. Indian intelligence agencies are strengthening the hands of extremists and criminals in Pakistan to perpetrate terror. Former U.S. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel publically expressed concern at the Indian involvement inside Pakistan. Chairman U.S. House Arms Services Committee, Senator McCain also discussed with former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, possible Pakistani response to an Indian limited strike inside Pakistan.
    This interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs is a clear breach of international law and affects Pakistan’s ability to fight terrorism.
    Ensuring that a country’s territory is not used against another country is a collective obligation. Pakistan has ensured that no militant networks operate from its soil. Pakistan is doing what it takes to root out terrorism. However, similar intent or behaviour is not visible in its neighbourhood. Instead, there is a clearly discernible drift towards extremism.
    The scourge of terrorism cannot be defeated within South Asia until and unless India stops using it as an instrument of policy against Pakistan. In the interest of international peace, security and regional stability, it is the responsibility of the international community to recognize this imperative.
    Unfortunately, economic imperatives and short-term geopolitical interests sometimes trumps the urge to do the right thing!

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    “Pakistan’s Islamic bomb
    Multi-pronged approach must to deal with its nuclear illusions”

    • Peace Maker (History)

      If bombs had religions – there is a triad of HIndu bombs with Intercontinental reach that is growing at a fast pace!

  3. Bradley Laing (History)


    . In 2014, an email from one of them hit my inbox. Did I know much about satellites, it asked? Perhaps I should look into this curious new object?

    “In May 2014 there was a regular Russian rocket launch that put four satellites up into orbit,” recalls Bob Christy, a former Kettering pupil. “But one of them wasn’t the same as the others.” Three — as had been publicly declared — were Rodnik communications satellites. The fourth, though, was something quite else. Officially it was classified on the Pentagon’s public space database as orbital junk. But then it began to manoeuvre. “It moved away from the others,” says Christy. “And then we watched it put itself on a trajectory to catch up again with the rocket booster that launched it. It was some kind of test.”

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    “The UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system could be rendered obsolete by cyber attacks, former Defence Secretary Lord Browne has warned…

    On Monday it was revealed the cost of renewing the system had risen to £31bn.

    The government also said the start date for the replacement submarines had been put back until “the early 2030s” as it unveiled its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).”