Michael KreponContingency Planning

Quote of the week:

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” ― Dwight D. Eisenhower

The most fundamental norm – the one we depend upon to prevent massive and sudden crimes against humanity and nature — is the norm of No Use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Nuclear-armed states refuse to codify this norm in treaty form, and some refuse to embrace declaratory policies of No First Use. And yet the norm of No Use in warfare abides, the foremost achievement of seven decades of diplomatic practice and crisis management.

What contingency plans can reinforce the norm of No Use in times of deep crisis? Some answers can be found in the last extremely serious, nuclear-tinged crisis – the “Twin Peaks” crisis between Pakistan and India that occurred two decades ago.

This crisis was sparked in December 2001 when well-armed militants affiliated with groups backed by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services carried out a brazen attack against the Indian Parliament building. Nearly a million Indian and Pakistan troops mobilized for war, awaiting a “go” decision by a reluctant Indian Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Deputy, Richard Armitage, led an international crisis management effort, including Armitage’s shuttle diplomacy. The standoff continued through May 2002, when militants based in Pakistan crossed the Kashmir divide and attacked an Indian Army housing encampment, killing three jawans, eighteen family members, and ten civilians. I was in Kashmir at the time and thought that this incendiary act would mean war.

So did the U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, who ordered “nonessential” U.S. embassy personnel and all dependents to leave the country. This sent an unmistakable signal to all travelers, including tourists and business executives, to avoid the region. Armitage then engaged in another round of crisis management talks. He succeeded because Vajpayee didn’t trust his Army Chief and dreaded the potential consequences of a full-blown war.

Blackwill’s announcement was intended to save lives, not to prevent war. In the event of a nuclear exchange on the subcontinent, it would have been impossible to organize an evacuation of embassy personnel, let alone tens of thousands of U.S. nationals in the region, since air travel to and from the subcontinent would have been suspended.

Shuttle diplomacy would have been suspended, as well. Blackwill’s announcement had the unintended effect of serving as an effective crisis management tool, clarifying that mushroom clouds would essentially leave the combatants to their own devices.

Evacuation orders and highly publicized travel warnings can help prevent the next nuclear-tinged crisis from resulting in mushroom clouds. Ditto for publicizing casualty estimates and other consequences of nuclear exchanges and uncontrolled escalation.

Officials in India and Pakistan resent these maneuvers as they imply a lack of confidence in their maturity to handle crises. Even more reason, then, to clarify steps that nuclear weapons are not being readied for launch during a deep crisis. The same tactics, whether employed by governments or nongovernmental organizations, can be usefully applied to U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese crises, as well. This isn’t about skin color: it’s about avoiding mushroom clouds.

In severe crises on the subcontinent during the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, Pakistan employed clearly observable steps related to nuclear weapons’ use as one way to prompt U.S. crisis management. The dynamics of crisis management on the subcontinent have changed with Washington’s embrace of India as a regional partner and with Beijing’s strong backing of Pakistan. Joint crisis management might well replace the U.S.-led efforts in the past. We’ll probably find out. All parties are obliged to update their contingency planning playbooks.

And then there’s picture taking. The Kennedy administration’s release of pictures taken by reconnaissance aircraft during the Cuban missile crisis clarified the stakes resulting from Nikita Khrushchev’s recklessness, ultimately helping to de-escalate matters.

There are, however, cons as well as pros in releasing imagery during a deep crisis, since doing so can prompt escalation rather than crisis resolution. These considerations were first previewed three decades ago in Commercial Observation Satellites and International Security

Nowadays, the release of commercial satellite imagery during a crisis is a predictable and unavoidable factor in crisis management. Imagery with improved resolution is widely available and many NGOs, including the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Stimson Center make use of these images to clarify ground realities. NGOs are now obliged to think through how the presentation of information accompanying the release of imagery in a deep crisis might serve to advance crisis resolution or intensification.    

Public declarations that a nuclear war must not be fought and cannot be won, like that recently released by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, are helpful. This canonical statement is worth repeating whenever leaders of nuclear-armed states meet. Leaders from India and Pakistan can lend support to this message, as well. 

Given the likelihood of crises to come, this is a good time for governments and NGOs to think creatively about persuasive ways to reinforce this message.



  1. Avon (History)

    This hypothesis ignores India’s reaction, and overall crisis management after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

    Moreover, it is naive to go back to 2001 for crisis management lessons, when it those rules were further rewritten (for better or worse) after the 2016 Uri and 2019 Pulwama attacks.

    The strategic circumstances and the comprehensive national power of India and Pakistan have diverged greatly between 2001 and 2022.