Michael KreponCrises between India and Pakistan: The Basics

Quote of the week:

“Clearly, five major crises within a twenty-year period indicate a fundamental structural problem… This region has not been stable and peaceful despite the common cultural and geopolitical heritage of its two dominant states.”

— Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta, Arming without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization, Brookings (2010)

Crises on the subcontinent are man-made and not accidental. The instigators have grievances and want to change the status quo. Crisis-triggering events usually do not come as a bolt out of the blue. Instead they are preceded by a series of events leading up to a big explosion. When a crisis comes as a surprise, someone important has been asleep at the switch.

There are indicators to the run-up of a crisis. Some are now very much evident. Firing along the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir is the highest in seven years, according to Indian accounts. Pakistan has accused India of over 1,300 cease-fire violations in 2017. Crossings by militant cadres into Kashmir are up. Public disaffection among Kashmiri Muslims under Indian governance is very high and combustible. Military posts along the LoC are being overrun.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded to this pattern of increased violence by publicizing “surgical strikes” in September 2016. These hit-and-run-and return operations can be scaled up if deemed warranted, as can Pakistani responses. Modi’s action shored up domestic support but did nothing to reverse or stem the pattern of violence across the LoC.

Crises reoccur because they don’t resolve any of the underlying problems. Instead, they just aggravate pre-existing conditions. Offsetting nuclear capabilities have not calmed these troubled waters. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because nuclear weapons do not have a calming influence. Instead, they magnify grievances.

The alternative to crises, sub-conventional sparring, and limited warfare between India and Pakistan is intensive and sustained diplomacy to reconcile differences. But this pathway requires a bold leader in India to take the initiative and a bold leader in Pakistan willing to stand up to spoilers. This hasn’t been tried since Partition.

The frequency of crises is hard to predict. Sometimes they follow closely after each other; at other times, there can be a long hiatus between crises. There was a nine-year lull between the 1990 crisis, sparked by a large-scale Pakistani military exercise and inflammable developments fostered by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services in Kashmir and Punjab, and the Kargil war. India and Pakistan have now gone over nine years since the 2008 crisis when cadres of the Lashkar e-Taiba attacked iconic targets in Mumbai.

So far, the high-water mark for crises and risk taking on the subcontinent occurred in the first three years after the 1998 nuclear tests. These years of living dangerously were marked by the 1999 Kargil war followed by the 2001-2 “Twin Peaks” crisis, which was sparked by an attack on the Indian parliament building by militant cadres whose leadership were based in Pakistan.

Every crisis has provided an impetus to Pakistani and Indian nuclear modernization programs, upping the stakes for the next crisis. There is no evidence, however, that an accelerated nuclear competition or the nuclear balance of forces have affected the outcome of any crisis, in part because the contestants remain largely in the dark as to each other’s actual capabilities.

To shore up deterrence, Pakistan threatens to use nuclear weapons first and India threatens to respond with massive retaliation. These threats lack credibility to the listeners, no matter how often they are repeated because they appear too dangerous to initiate. Nuclear detonations by accident or by a breakdown of command and control are more likely than orders being passed down from Indian or Pakistani decision makers.

Why have nuclear detonations been absent so far? New Delhi’s leaders place a high priority on economic growth and have viewed uncontrolled escalation as a significant threat to this objective. In addition, there is a paucity of meaningful targets for Indian forces within Azad Jammu and Kashmir, where escalation is mostly likely to be controlled. Targets elsewhere in Pakistan are another matter.

Pakistan’s decision makers are also sensitive to uncontrolled escalation. All of these constraining factors continue to remain in place in the event of another crisis. In addition, Pakistan’s leaders now have concerns about the impact of fighting on crucial Chinese Belt and Road investments. The more both countries need to focus on improving the environment for foreign investment, the more unwelcome another severe crisis would be.

Perhaps this helps explain the absence of big explosions since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. There is also reason to hope that Pakistan’s decision makers have internalized the lessons of prior crises. Dangerous misadventures have not advanced the Kashmir cause. Instead, the Kargil War and big explosions in India with links to violent extremist groups based in Pakistan have reaffirmed the status quo in Kashmir, badly damaged Pakistan’s international standing, and have diminished its economic prospects, aside from China.

It is possible that the worst nuclear-tinged crises on the subcontinent are a reflection of a more troubled past. But there is no room for complacency. Some of the indicators of another major crisis are growing. Violence along the Kashmir divide and unrest within the Kashmir Valley are high. Spoilers haven’t changed their agendas. India and Pakistan have track records of miscalculation about acceptable tolerance levels, and sustained diplomacy to improve ties has insufficient backing. There’s also a Catch 22 about activating diplomacy, as this might activate spoilers, as well. Even so, without sustained diplomacy to make progress on long-standing disputes, the risk of nuclear crises will remain ever prevalent in the Subcontinent.

Note to readers: Stimson has published an outstanding new collection of essays on crises between India and Pakistan, Investigating Crises: South Asia’s Lessons, Evolving Dynamics and Trajectories, edited by Sameer Lalwani and Hannah Haegeland. It can be read at www.investigatingcrises.org


  1. thegreathoax (History)

    the Kashmir dispute probably a deeper existential challenge than was generally realized. now we have the potential for a permanent and apparent conflict with the entry of China’s grand strategy into the equation