Different kind of crisis, same need for Washington

By , September 23, 2016

A new South Asian crisis began on September 18 when armed militants attacked an Indian military post in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing 18 soldiers. Officials in New Delhi quickly voiced suspicion that Islamabad was involved. A war of words broke out. India weighed its strategic options, and Pakistan's defense minister said Islamabad wouldn't hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons if its security were threatened. Unsurprisingly, both sides sought US involvement in the crisis. New Delhi asked that Islamabad be sanctioned economically for support of terror, and Islamabad sought redress of human rights violations in Indian Kashmir.

The new crisis broke out after this roundtable began publication. Nonetheless, a key issue in Round One was the appropriate level of US involvement in South Asian crises. Rabia Akhtar argued that India and Pakistan must learn to solve crises on their own—instead of relying on "the strategic mollycoddling of an extra-regional power." Mario Carranza wrote that US engagement in South Asia is critical and in fact called for more of it. My views tend to align with Carranza's. In a region where relations between two nuclear-armed adversaries, one of them a fragmented state, are complicated by violent non-state actors, stability demands that the United States continue to be involved.

Not just reacting. In many ways, the current crisis on the subcontinent is similar to previous crises. But two key differences distinguish it from previous iterations.

First, the current crisis occurs at a time of change in Washington's priorities in Asia. It appears that Washington's support for Pakistan as an ally in its "war on terror" could unravel. A bill now before the US Congress would designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. The Pentagon announced in early August that it would withhold $300 million in military aid from Pakistan because of Islamabad's failure to act against militants who operate in Afghanistan. In the past, despite qualms about the Pakistani government, Washington has generally lent support to Islamabad because it has needed Pakistan's help as an ally, either in the Cold War or during the "war on terror." Now Washington appears willing to break from this path and establish a new strategic axis in Asia—with the United States, India, Japan, and South Korea countering Russia, China, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Second, the actual use of nuclear weapons in a South Asian crisis appears increasingly likely. Pakistan relies heavily on the "madman theory," Richard Nixon's technique for intimidating an adversary into acquiescence by deliberately appearing irrational. Islamabad has found the madman theory useful both for warding off an Indian conventional military attack—the Pakistani defense minister's recent statement about using tactical nuclear weapons was not the first such claim from Islamabad—and for drawing concessions from the United States. Admittedly, India's large defense expenditures contribute to the tense situation. Moreover, New Delhi is no longer a "reactive power," as many experts once categorized it. In recent years India has increased its support for pro-independence groups in Pakistan's province of Balochistan—hoping to jolt Islamabad, much as Pakistan itself jolts India by supporting separatist groups in Indian Kashmir.

Still, though much is made of India's Cold Start military doctrine, New Delhi's operational capability to carry out the sort of attack envisioned in Cold Start remains unproven. And in any event, New Delhi values its international status as a "responsible power" too much to squander that reputation on a unilateral military action against Islamabad. In contrast, a fractured and diplomatically cornered Pakistani state could all too easily begin a nuclear war.

In Round One I spelled out the reasons that South Asian nuclear stability is so precarious—growing supplies of fissile materials, poor nuclear security, and more. One measure I proposed for reducing tensions was for both sides to adhere, in one form or another, to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But given the strategic situation on the subcontinent, not to mention the present crisis, a bilateral nuclear test ban appears unlikely. Perhaps a bilateral no-first use agreement is possible instead. If so, it could put an end to the current state of affairs, in which each new subnational attack introduces the risk of a nuclear exchange. Such an agreement, however, will not materialize without effort from the international community. Leadership, naturally, must come from the United States.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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