Michael KreponUpending the Stalemate between India and Pakistan

Trend lines in the subcontinent are poor and will not improve until there is substantive dialogue between India and Pakistan. Hopes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would pull a “Nixon goes to China” maneuver with Pakistan have been dashed, at least for now. Modi either has no Pakistan policy or has a policy not to engage with Pakistan. It’s worth recalling, however, that President Richard Nixon didn’t pursue his China gambit early on. And that General Pervez Musharraf introduced himself to India with a land grab and ended his presidential run trying to reach a settlement over Kashmir. It’s never a good idea to type cast or pigeonhole ambitious leaders. Rather, it’s usually a good idea to look for openings to improve testy relations between states that possess nuclear weapons.

For now, however, relations are most definitely sour and are likely to remain that way until Modi shifts gears from a one-topic agenda item for talks, focused on terrorism. This stance, like Islamabad’s renewed embrace of the Kashmir issue and the compilation of dossiers of Indian trouble making in Baluchistan and elsewhere, serve as placeholders until Modi is ready for serious, sustained engagement. Pakistan hasn’t won a favorable UN resolution on Kashmir since 1957, but old chestnuts keep being thrown into the fire.

The avoidance of nuclear dangers now depends on the absence of a big explosion in India that can be traced back to a group like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, with its historical ties to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. There have been no big explosions since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, seven long years ago. Perhaps this suggests control as well as influence by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services over the LeT, for which they cannot take public credit. Perhaps this suggests success in a strategy of defanging the LeT in return for monetary incentives and other benefits, such as not prosecuting its leaders. Perhaps Rawalpindi has internalized the realization that the damage to Pakistan’s image and economic prospects resulting from these attacks far exceed the satisfaction gained by causing India pain and embarrassment. Perhaps Modi’s reputation as a hard-liner has served as a deterrent. Or perhaps another attack is in the offing. Most of us just don’t know the answers to this riddle; those who do aren’t talking.

In the meantime, Pakistan and India are increasing their nuclear arsenals, with Pakistan doing so faster than India. Rawalpindi’s nuclear deterrent includes tactical nuclear weapons of varying kinds, to dissuade New Delhi from carrying out cross-border conventional thrusts in response to another Mumbai-like attack. Since tactical nuclear weapons are the least safe and secure in Pakistan’s arsenal, and since these and longer-range, nuclear-capable launchers will be moved around in the midst of a serious crisis, nuclear risks will grow significantly in the event of another confrontation. Pakistan’s military leaders seem unpersuaded by arguments that mixing tactical nuclear weapons into conventional battle plans is a lousy idea.

Combat between ground forces, backed up by air power, will greatly accentuate the risk that there will be a battlefield nuclear detonation. What might be done to defuse India-Pakistan relations and break the back of the nuclear competition on the subcontinent, the way that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev broke the back of the superpower nuclear arms race?

Permit me a flight of fancy – and suspend disbelief for a brief moment. Reagan and Gorbachev were out-of-the box thinkers and risk takers. They set the ball rolling by declaring that, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Words can be empty and devoid of content. They can also have the power to shape perceptions and actions. These particular words undermined programs for nuclear war-fighting strategies of deterrence and paved the way for significant nuclear arms reductions.

So allow me to put words in Prime Minister Modi’s mouth – words that could greatly reduce nuclear dangers and upend Pakistan’s anti-India narrative. First, Modi might announce that, in the event of another attack on Indian soil by extremist organizations based in Pakistan, he will not initiate a ground campaign across borders. Instead, he will consider other military options. Or, like his predecessors, he might conclude that Pakistan is not worth another war that risks uncontrolled escalation and damage to the Indian economy. The blame for a new crisis, like its predecessors, would fall squarely on Pakistan, which would once again suffer diplomatic and economic setbacks without India having to strike a blow.

Pakistan’s hawks will not believe Modi’s stated intention, any more than they believe India’s pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. How, then, might Modi be more persuasive? By announcing that if Rawalpindi is intent on mortgaging Pakistan’s future by spending Soviet-like budget percentages for military-related accounts – including spending to repel a ground campaign that India does not intend to wage — it is entirely free to do so. Likewise, if Rawalpindi wishes to grow its nuclear arsenal at a faster rate than any other state possessing nuclear weapons, it will not hear even one muted complaint from New Delhi. India, Modi might say, will continue to grow its arsenal at its own pace, giving priority to social welfare and electricity over nuclear weapons.

These statements would also be met with disbelief by Pakistan’s hawks, just as hawks in the United States could not believe Mikhail Gorbachev’s stated intent to take away Washington’s enemy image of the Soviet Union. Since Modi, like Gorbachev, will continue to spend money on conventional and nuclear forces, hawks in Pakistan will find reason to continue to plan against worst cases. So what else, in this flight of fancy, might Modi say or do?

Modi might re-energize back-channel talks between India and Pakistan on a long-overdue Kashmir settlement. The outlines of a settlement are well known: there would be a permanent moratorium on firing across the Kashmir divide; borders would not change but neither would they become impediments to improved relations; security forces would be thinned out on both sides and greater autonomy given to locals; economic trade would significantly increase across multiple gateways, and broader regional economic integration plans would be implemented.

Kashmir isn’t a Gordian knot; it is well known how to untie this dispute. These plans have long awaited Indian and Pakistani leaders strong enough to override interests that are deeply invested in familiar posturing. A civilian prime minister in Pakistan cannot take the lead is dispute resolution, but might be able to follow Modi’s lead – if the costs to Pakistan of rejecting a fair plan and the incentives to accept it are meaningful. Even if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in unable to reach a settlement along these lines, a strong Indian government would gain ground internationally by proposing it, while opening a release valve for growing disaffection in the Kashmir Valley.

This scenario is currently implausible. It’s easier to make the same old speeches, while peace making entails risk. Autocracies can turn on a dime; vigorous democracies cannot. Right flanks have blocking power and bureaucracies do not get paid to envision improbable success stories. There is no welcome relief on the horizon from the impasse in India-Pakistan relations, marked by growing nuclear dangers.

Nothing could upend deeply ritualized hostility and reduce nuclear dangers on the subcontinent more than this Nobel Prize-worthy script. Might Modi be capable of good surprises after taking missteps, just as Musharraf was?

But enough of this daydreaming. It’s time once again to visit Pakistan.


  1. Rakam (History)

    Is this the quality of analysis that the best of the US has to offer. How about, Pakistan stop supporting terrorists that kill innocent Indians. That would be better than gratuitous advice that India keep turning the other cheek. Maybe the US can lead by example and not burn down half the world next time it suffers a Mumbai-like event.

    Out of curiosity, what consequences did Pakistan suffer from its involvement in Mumbai? From a historical perspective, any criticism was brief and fleeting.

    • Peacemaker (History)

      Jury is still out on whether terrorism in India has had quasi-support from Pakistan. However, Indian top leadership has itself, BBC, former American Secretary of Defence and Pakistan’s dossiers clearly prove that India uses terrorism and funds militants and a particular political party for fomenting instability in Pakistan. It is their stated State policy.
      Indian pre-emptive Cold Start Doctrine has been operationalised on a faulty premise. It considers Pakistan’s defensive response unfair and threatens an incredible massive retaliation!

    • Magpie (History)

      If your objective is to support those elements of Pakistan’s government that opposes support for terrorist attacks on India – or provocation of India in general – then yes, turning the other cheek is most likely to achieve that aim. If your objective is to give the maximum possible support to elements within Pakistan hostile to India, then by all means, antagonise them.

      Sadly, it is very rare for the satisfying thing to be the right thing.

  2. Sulman (History)

    Although Pakistan has been making efforts to better the ties by bilateral negotiations but it is the truth that Indian consulates in Afghanistan have been used to destabilize Pakistan. Today, Indian policy makers are agitated that Pakistan will become stronger if it effectively controls menace of Taliban. Therefore, India desires to part Pakistan military power by a hostile posture on the Line of Control.

  3. Abelard French (History)

    Hopes are high for the peace between two states but it is highly troubling to see in comparison to Pakistan’s media channels and locals – the vast Indian media channels and hardliner Hindu political parties are more active in spreading the hatred among the locals. Bashing minorities, whether Muslims or Sikhs or low caste Hindus is now common in India. Peace within can promote peace outside!

  4. Juuso (History)

    Knowing how badly Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests did go (fizzles and lying about yields, etc) is there any reason to believe that their warheads actually work as intended?

  5. Uban (History)

    Dear Mike,

    I fear PM Modi is not cut from the same cloth as PM Atal Behari Vajpayee before him.

    Like ABV, PM Modi “unified” the party, however whereas ABV unified it through relentless compromise and consensus building, the Modi unification came from a much more negative process.

    I doubt this administration is capable of thinking out of the box vis-a-vis Pakistan. The box is largely one of their own making.

    All throughout the election – the BJP kept harping on how the Manmohan Singh administration was incompetent at handling Pakistan and that PM Modi – the heir of the Hindu kings of old was going to put the Pakistanis in their place.

    At this time if he is seen making the gestures you propose to Pakistan, it is likely his own supporters will call for his removal from power.

    It is not clear to me what will happen if his supporters suffer so much cognitive dissonance. The entire BJP might become internally unstable.

    If anything is done to reassure the Pakistanis, it will have to be done off the books through deniable intermediaries. That sort of thing will not produce the optics you might find acceptable.

    This was the path that ABV took via RKM. And RKM didn’t operate alone he had BM holding his back.

    Now both of these giants are gone, and people of that caliber do not exist.

  6. RAJ47 (History)

    Ha! Ha!! Ha!!!
    After reading the article I day-dreamt, that the country with maximum nukes declared NFU.
    Then to achieve the first individual double Nobel their President declared, they will only have self defense force!
    Then to get a triple Nobel, he dismantled their entire nuclear stockpile.

  7. Rakam (History)

    The only thing stopping another Mumbai is the threat of an Indian military response. The difference between the attacks on Mumbai and the attacks yesterday in Paris, is that Mumbai was the result of a state-sponsored and facilitated terrorism, while Paris was the result of irregular actors.