Last month three terror attacks once again struck Mumbai, killing approximately 25 people. The attacks turned out to be the doing of an India-based Islamist outfit, the Indian Mujahedeen, and did not involve Pakistan-based Islamist militants.
In the media coverage since, terrorism experts on South Asia have posited that this attack was not a decisive shift in Islamist terrorism in India -- their argument, instead, was that Pakistan-based militants, increasingly autonomous in their operations, still remain the most likely source of a large-scale attack on Indian soil.
Since the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, major cross-border attacks have resulted in bilateral crises. This was the case with the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and again after the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed over 160 people. With this in mind, it should not be discounted that future cross-border attacks could raise tensions again.
Indeed, Indian officials have already hinted that another Mumbai-like episode may force the Indian government to retaliate against militant strongholds in Pakistan. In May, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the Pakistani intelligence chief, told his country's parliament that its military has already identified and rehearsed targets for a response to an Indian aggression.
If these warnings materialize into reality, preventing swift and uncontrolled escalation will be extremely challenging. And good fortune will be more important than any systematic buffers built into the India-Pakistan nuclear calculus; this is not a good gamble. As is, India and Pakistan have scant bilateral escalation-control mechanisms: Their nuclear equation lacks transparency in postures and strategies, their red lines are ambiguous, they only have modest early warning capabilities, their structural realities such as geographical proximity exacerbates risks, and, most importantly, they tend to look toward outside actors, principally the United States, to de-escalate tensions.
In the Cold War superpower rivalry, no third power was strong enough to intervene or mediate. With India and Pakistan, the situation is much different. They not only are influenced by outside actors, but have actively sought outside assistance in crisis situations to solicit an outcome in their favor. Since 1998, every crisis has seen one or both sides reach out to the United States. In 1999, during the Kargil conflict, Pakistan used good US relations to its advantage. In 2001 and 2008 both sides goaded the international community to reign in the other. Historically, these countries have made it something of a habit to outsource crisis management to the United States for all practical purposes.
The US response to the 1999 Kargil crisis, the 2001-02 military stand-off, and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks was commendable: It acted in a neutral fashion, resisting support of any one position. However, Washington's positive role is not at all guaranteed the next time. In the future, US interests or the international environment may not allow the country to remain totally neutral. It is also possible that India or Pakistan may expect the unachievable from Washington -- to favor one over the other; and this disillusionment that the US would oblige could prompt them to be even more provocative, only exacerbating the crisis.
If there were to be another Mumbai-type attack, India would want the United States to intervene and restrain Pakistan -- but only after India responds by retaliating against Pakistan-based militants on Pakistani soil. Pakistan, on the other hand, would want US intervention immediately after a terror strike to prevent India from retaliating at all. In a fast-paced environment, to expect an external party to be able to play this out to perfection is wishful. This is especially true when both sides are actively preparing for swift, limited strikes against the other that require minimal preparation time to go into effect.
India and Pakistan declared their nuclear status over a decade ago. Yet, progress toward building confidence to share information on their nuclear programs and to build robust buffers against uncontrolled escalation during crises has been marginal. A number of important Track II efforts have already produced worthy suggestions on the way forward, but these have been held up by bureaucracies on both sides.
The reinvigorated bilateral dialogue process presents a great opportunity to make progress on nuclear risk-reduction measures. A dedicated dialogue on nuclear issues at the official level, unaffected by the whims of the Pakistan-India relationship, would be a welcomed first step.
In a utopian world, the very need for crisis management would disappear as the two sides normalize relations and prevent crises from happening. But idealism should not overshadow urgency: A better crisis-management system must be established to reduce dependence on an outside actor as the principal agent for de-escalation.