Time for India and Pakistan to resolve their own crises

By Rabia Akhtar, September 14, 2016

For nearly two decades, India and Pakistan have lived constantly under the shadow of nuclear war. In 1999, within a year of becoming nuclear-armed, the two states were embroiled in the Kargil crisis, a conventional conflict in which a limited nuclear exchange seemed a real and very threatening possibility. Each crisis since Kargil has raised anew the threat of nuclear escalation. Thus the subcontinent urgently needs a crisis management system that can prevent rapid escalation from conventional to nuclear war. It's not acceptable simply to hope that no further crises will develop. The two countries have shared a troubled past, and given their protracted conflict over Kashmir and the region's cross-border terrorism, hoping that crises won't occur is essentially dreaming the impossible.

Each nation's behavior toward the other is shaped, to some extent, by confidence-building measures that have been instituted over the years, both before and since nuclearization. But these measures do not prevent crises—nor, crucially, do they help manage them once they begin. And since crises are almost certain to erupt from time to time, the primary focus of nuclear stability efforts in South Asia should be to develop a mechanism for preventing rapid escalation, from conventional to nuclear, when crises do occur.

Too much Uncle Sam. Since nuclearization in 1998, both Pakistan and India have shaped their nuclear arsenals to suit their own strategic needs and outlooks. Each nation has developed its nuclear infrastructure and has continually modernized its nuclear assets and delivery systems. And each has flirted with the idea of limited nuclear war. Amid all this, each has learned how difficult it is to prevent escalation during a crisis.

Indeed, every time a bilateral crisis with nuclear overtones has developed, the United States has been asked to broker peace and practice crisis management. In effect, India and Pakistan have outsourced escalation control to the United States. Washington has ended up as the standard bearer for South Asian crisis stability even though it has no control over the Indian-Pakistani dynamic of deterrence. India and Pakistan's outright reliance on third-party mediation has left the South Asian nations dependent on the strategic mollycoddling of an extra-regional power.

Islamabad and New Delhi, both before crises and during them, face an absolute need for open channels of communication and dialogue. But today, the only available structures are fragile, unstable, and prone to collapse—just witness the "composite dialogue" process that was launched in 2004 but crashed in 2008 after the Mumbai attacks.

The United States, meanwhile, is not certain to remain engaged in future South Asian crises. In fact, some observers of regional escalation dynamics worry that US disengagement could prove highly dangerous—India and Pakistan have never handled crisis dynamics on their own, so what guarantees that they could? I understand this concern. But at the same time, India and Pakistan will never learn to contain nuclear dangers if Washington is always worrying about escalation on behalf of the two countries. The United States should actively encourage the two sides to develop bilateral crisis management mechanisms so that, when the next crisis requires de-escalation, Islamabad and New Delhi can reach out to each other instead of Washington.

The shared responsibility. In 1998, the year of the subcontinent's nuclearization, Pakistan proposed that India join it in an arrangement called the Strategic Restraint Regime. The regime contained three critical, interlocking elements: nuclear restraint, balanced conventional forces, and resolution of disputes. Years have passed, but the regime could still be adapted to contain bilateral crisis management as an essential element of its broader measures for nuclear risk reduction. Unfortunately, India has opposed the regime and has treated its three elements dismissively—arguing that New Delhi's military capabilities and force posture are driven by threat perceptions extending beyond Pakistan.

It's a strange argument. India's deployment of armored formations along the Pakistani border is certainly specific to Pakistan. So is New Delhi's Cold Start offensive doctrine, which is designed for launching quick military action against Pakistan without crossing Islamabad's nuclear threshold. India may have realized by now how difficult Cold Start would be to execute, operationally speaking. But the damage is done: Cold Start has already provoked Islamabad to develop battlefield nuclear weapons.

India ought to receive in a spirit of magnanimity any proposal that Pakistan makes, whether it's the Strategic Restraint Regime or some means of developing bilateral crisis prevention and management mechanisms. But ever since India went nuclear, it has displayed a great deal of swagger. Sometimes it treats Pakistan as a sort of "nuclear Dalit" (the lowest caste in India)—not worthy of respect and equal treatment at the nuclear table. But responsibility for altering South Asia's strategic dynamic lies as much with India as with Pakistan. The two countries, together, are responsible for regional stability. As long as the two sides fail to recognize the mutuality of their threat perceptions, chances of establishing "mutually assured strategic stability" are dim.

India and Pakistan cannot ignore or wish away geography. The only way toward strategic stability—a shared responsibility, after all—is through dialogue and cooperation.

A final point. Near-term prospects for South Asian nuclear disarmament appear dim. But long-term prospects are no better, unless and until the process of global nuclear disarmament quickens at the top. That is, the recognized nuclear weapon states must start keeping their end of the bargain that underlies the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Though India and Pakistan, through hard work and a willingness to cooperate, may yet achieve nuclear stability on the subcontinent, they cannot achieve global disarmament on their own. That job must start with the largest nuclear powers.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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