Monday, April 29, 2013

To the Brink and Back: India and Pakistan’s Continual Escalations

Since 1998, the world has lived with two openly nuclear neighbors with a troubling relationship. India and Pakistan have never enjoyed completely amicable relations since independence and partition in 1947. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by both powers have had analysts predicting alternately Armageddon and a stable subcontinent ever since. India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974 but refrained from launching another test for over 20 years, until 1998 when it tested its first fusion weapon. In response, Pakistan launched 6 missiles, officially joining the global nuclear club. Neither country is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus were not in contravention of international law in proliferating. Yet the international community’s initial response was one of dual-sided approbation and fear, especially given the two countries’ long-standing territorial dispute in Kashmir. Pakistan had been supporting the Kashmiri insurgency as well as other uprisings within India for decades, and now there was real danger of escalation of conflicts to the nuclear level in the minds of scholars and policymakers alike. Alarm bells were ringing in South Asian circles with many predicting that there would be a new and equally dangerous “Cold War” on the sub-continent.

In the 15 years since the last nuclear tests, Pakistan and India have weathered many major crises, including the Kargil War and the 2001-2002/2008 terrorist attacks and subsequent conventional mobilization. This pattern of approaching and retreating from the nuclear threshold has elicited a variety of analyses and associated policy recommendations. Many compare the situation to the “stability-instability paradox” that functioned to prevent nuclear conflict in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States but allowed low-level and proxy conventional conflicts to flourish. Others disagree and say that this is a new situation with a different stability-instability dynamic at work. Some posit that nuclear weapons are not the key factor in determining the prospects for conflict between India and Pakistan and that external parties or organizational aspects of the government or military are to blame. Yet all arrive at a nearly identical set of policy recommendations: the United States needs to maintain a high level of engagement with both countries; more command and control structures must be developed, especially in Pakistan; both countries need to make clear their nuclear postures and policies, including those related to safety and security; and top-tier communication must be undertaken by both governments as they work towards a negotiated settlement in Kashmir.

What has emerged in South Asia is a pattern of continual escalations along the border on the conventional level, but a retreat from conflict before the nuclear threshold is even close to being breached. In fact, escalations have cooled down over time, with the most dangerous occurring during the Kargil War in 1999 when both Pakistan and India appeared to have readied and deployed nuclear weapons. Yet as Vernie Liebl points out in his assessment of the two countries’ nuclear policies and strategies, deployment “does not mean that nuclear-tipped units have been deployed to their launching areas for war” (161), WHAT DOES IT MEAN. In the major incidents since, India has deployed massive conventional forces to but never across the border, and Pakistan has shown similar restraint. Even “spoiler” terrorist attacks by Pakistani militant groups suspected to enjoy government support, especially in 2002 and 2008, did not manage to bring the two countries to blowS. While the continual escalations do create a troubling window of opportunity for low-level conflicts to spiral out of control, they have lowered in intensity of military and government responses despite some scholars’ worst predictions. Moving forward, they are likely to continue on this trend of amelioration and a new age in India-Pakistan relations could be at hand. As both countries shift their focus to economic development and maintenance of severe internal problems, their leaderships have an opportunity and incentive to increase cooperation, seek settlement of long-standing disputes, and open the door to more regional trade and less instability. Yet the peace is by no means assured. As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014, it must not lose crucial interest in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood. Potential for conflict remains in the form of Kashmir, terrorism, and increasingly, water issues at the border.

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