Michael KreponCrisis Management Gets More Complicated between Pakistan and India

Quotes of the week:
“The ability to win a local war cannot be translated into the ability to fight it safely and therefore cannot provide a firm foundation for either deterrence or coercion.”
— Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (1989)

“The problem…is not that one’s own nuclear weapons might prove insufficiently frightening to the adversary to deter adventurism, but that through a thoughtlessly chosen offensive nuclear posture, one might… provoke the adversary to make a preemptive attack.”

— Barry Posen, Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks (1991)

The dynamics of crisis management between India and Pakistan have changed in significant ways over the past several years, which makes the mid-January publication of the Stimson Center’s new book edited by Sameer Lalwani and Hannah Haegeland, Investigating Crises: South Asia’s Lessons, Evolving Dynamics, and Trajectories, extremely timely.

At least two important new developments have to be thought through carefully. Ties between the United States and India as well as between China and Pakistan are greatly improved. What does this mean for crisis management?

And what do “surgical strikes” and “befitting responses” imply for crisis management? In past crises, Indian leaders decided not to respond to attacks by groups with links to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services – even on a large scale. Will Indian political and military restraint hold in the event of small-scale attacks, let alone major ones? Or is Indian retaliation of some sort now likely, which could prompt Pakistan’s military responses, thereby placing the “ball” back in India’s court? The next severe crises between Pakistan and India could play out in multiple sequences. Crisis management on the subcontinent is moving from checkers to chess.

The first line of defense to prevent a crisis on the subcontinent still resides with Pakistan’s military leadership. When the revisionist state does not wish to change the status quo on the subcontinent, crisis managers can take a holiday.

Since 1990, risk-taking Pakistani military leaders have chosen to challenge the status quo on four occasions, most dramatically during the Kargil War in 1999, and then by attacks by violent extremist groups on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the 2008 rampage in Mumbai. These crises hurt Pakistan more than India. So why did they happen?

Perhaps one reason is that Pakistani decision makers managed to convince themselves that these crises would be manageable and their outcomes beneficial. A second possible reason why, flowing from the first, is that Pakistani decision makers assumed they could advance claims of plausible deniability in pursuit of an advantageous outcome, at least to a useful degree. A third possibility is that Pakistan’s leaders were not fully aware or cognizant of the dangers in plans hatched by their military and intelligence services.

The third of these explanations is not deemed credible outside of Pakistan – and surely not after the linkages revealed before and during the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The only way at present for Pakistan to credibly claim that it is not in collusion with anti-India extremist groups would be to withdraw the hospitality shown to them, sever links with cadres that cross the Kashmir divide, and shut down groups that recruit, indoctrinate, and train cadres for suicide missions. This hasn’t happened, and seems unlikely to happen as long as Pakistan’s military and intelligence services maintain their longstanding cost/benefit calculus.

But what now? How might China’s new economic lifeline to Pakistan affect Rawalpindi’s calculations? What might the benefits of Beijing’s investments – and the ability of Pakistan’s leaders to secure fair terms of investment – mean for the avoidance of another serious crisis?

I am cautiously optimistic. Institutions protect their interests but are capable of learning. Big explosions triggered by anti-India jihadi groups have been terrible news for Pakistan’s economic prospects and international standing. How deeply have Pakistan’s military and intelligence services internalized these lessons? We don’t know. What we do know is that there has not been another massive crisis-triggering event since 2008. China’s self-interested investments in Pakistan should reinforce a crisis prevention mentality among the guardians.

The second line of defense against uncontrolled escalation has always been in New Delhi’s possession. During the Kargil War, New Delhi exercised great care in pushing back Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry troops without utilizing air power on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control dividing the old Princely State.

After the 2001-2002 “Twin Peaks” crisis triggered by the Parliament building attack, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government nearly went to war. Ultimately Vajpayee decided that it was not worth sacrificing India’s economic growth to the uncertainties of war and escalation control. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of the Congress Party-led coalition government, quickly came to a similar conclusion.

Will the second line of defense against escalation hold in the future? Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to publicize “surgical strikes” in September 2016 — after a series of lesser provocations culminating in an attack at an Indian military post at Uri in which 19 Indian soldiers died — certainly suggests otherwise. Modi has willingly placed himself on the hook to counter creeping adventurism by anti-India jihadist groups.

As a practical matter, this suggests that the second and subsequent lines of defense against escalation are now permeable. If Modi pursues remedies like those after the Uri attack, U.S. crisis managers are unlikely to argue for complete forbearance. And if Modi uses force in response to provocation, Rawalpindi would face its own imperatives to respond in “befitting” ways.

We are headed toward unfamiliar terrain here – perhaps sufficiently foreboding to override my cautious optimism. U.S. crisis managers have never possessed the power to prevent big explosions or escalatory responses. These decisions have always been in the hands of Pakistani military and Indian civilian decision makers. However, Washington and other capitals still retain influence to prevent a crisis from escalating to limited conventional warfare, uncontrolled escalation, and the abyss.

This terrain is very complicated. The halcyon days of U.S. crisis management, relying heavily on New Delhi’s restraint after severe provocations, seem to be behind us. The goal posts are shifting toward the demonstrative use of force. Even so, leaders in New Delhi and Rawalpindi have powerful reasons to contain the choreography of violence to manageable levels.

Another key question at this juncture is whether U.S. leadership in crisis management on the subcontinent remains firmly in place or if it is becoming a remnant of the past. Is the Trump administration ready and willing to play an active crisis management role? Does it have the personnel and ambition to do so? Or might it decide to adopt a more passive stance, even with such high stakes on the table?

What does an “America First” national security posture mean in the context of two nuclear-armed states that are in crisis? Is it time for India and Pakistan to deal directly with each other to reduce nuclear dangers, both during and after a crisis? Or are these dangers, along with U.S. strategic and regional interests, too great for Washington to refrain from active crisis management?The single line offered in the Trump administration’s new national security strategy — “The prospect for an Indo-Pakistani military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange remains a key concern requiring consistent diplomatic attention” — doesn’t shed much light on this subject.


  1. Muhammad (History)

    There seems to be undying fixation on so called terrorists’ induced crisis and India’s misrepresented restraint. This narrative is now obsolete and there is a need to move on. There had been more serious provocations, such as the gruesome killings of 132 school childrens in Peshawer, besides several other high profile terror incidents inside Pakistan perpetrated by India. The author might also blame these incidents on Pakistan, even though India’s senior leadership has made no secrets of their intent to use terror as a ‘state policy’ against Pakistan. There is a need for more sombre analysis of the ground reality and avoid misleading destructive alarmism that serves the interests of only one party and may not be useful for regional stability.

    Washington does not enjoy any more credibility as a neutral arbitrartor (it never was) in crisis management and has also lost its international standing. No one is expecting, and neither it should attempt to play a role in the future crisis between India and Pakistan.