External Affairs

The Waiting Game After Uri

For every reason to hope that severe nuclear-tinged crises between India and Pakistan might be in the rear-view mirror, there is a reason to expect one in the future.

Before the advent of nuclear weapon capabilities on the subcontinent, unresolved grievances over Kashmir resulted in wars. With the bomb’s appearance, unresolved grievances have led to mass casualty terrorism, crises and one limited conventional war. Crises have recurred because underlying grievances in both Pakistan and India are reaffirmed from one crisis to the next.

So far, the most serious crises on the subcontinent were the 1999 Kargil War and the 2001-2 Twin Peaks crisis. These back-to-back crises came soon after India and Pakistan advertised their nuclear capabilities with underground tests. Significantly, there have been no crises on the subcontinent since the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

It is possible that the worst nuclear-tinged crises are the reflection of a more reckless past, but this sanguine prediction cannot be confidently advanced. The conditions for another major crisis – widespread disaffection in Kashmir, spoilers in Pakistan, risk-taking personalities, an accident, a breakdown in command and control, or some other form of misfortune – remain present. As the attack at Uri suggests, the next severe crisis could happen at any time because Indian leaders have been unwilling to seek sustained, dramatically improved ties and Pakistan’s leaders have given them scant reason to try.

Is the worst really over?

As much as political leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad might wish to conclude that the worst is behind them, some events are beyond their control. Others will determine when the next crisis occurs and the extent of its severity. The advent of another risk-taking army chief in Pakistan could spark a crisis or anti-India groups based in Pakistan could do so. If the Pakistan army turns against anti-India groups, these groups might retaliate against targets in India as well as Pakistan, seeking to spark a catalytic war. Disaffected Muslims in India could spark a crisis, as might extended protests in Kashmir that could draw a higher level of support from across the Kashmir divide – a familiar escalatory pattern. An Indian prime minister might authorise military plans in response to an accumulation of small provocations or just one severe provocation. Or Indian and Pakistani leaders might decide to seek reconciliation, prompting a fierce backlash from irreconcilables.

For every reason to hope that severe nuclear-tinged crises might be in the rear-view mirror, there is a reason to expect one in the future. A succession of three Indian prime ministers of different political persuasions have looked hard at the precipice of warfare under the nuclear shadow and have walked away, deciding that gains could be ephemeral and pains long-lasting. They have instead chosen the path of restraint and the acceptance of temporary embarrassment.

Pakistani leaders, too, have been embarrassed, by continuing to allow safe havens for the attackers. Former President Pervez Musharraf promised this wouldn’t happen after the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament that sparked the Twin Peaks crisis, but Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) may not have gotten this memo.

The two primary wellsprings of crisis stability on the subcontinent to date have been New Delhi’s pursuit of economic growth and its concerns over uncontrolled escalation. We do not know whether Rawalpindi has contributed to this nearly decade-long record free of crises due to private understandings that have persuaded violent extremist groups to avoid triggering actions. Alternatively, violent extremist groups that enjoy safe havens in Pakistan and with the ISI might be testing the tolerance levels of Indian forbearance. Pakistan will not receive credit for restraint until Rawalpindi publicly clamps down on anti-India groups.

Uri tests the hypothesis that Rawalpindi has internalised the lessons of Kargil as well as the 2001 parliament and 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Kashmir cause has not been advanced by these adventures. Whenever Rawalpindi has sought to change the status quo in Kashmir, the status quo has been reaffirmed, while Pakistan’s standing has been deeply diminished along with its economic prospects.

Rallying to the Kashmir cause has advanced neither Pakistan’s well being nor that of Kashmiris; instead, New Delhi’s position in Muslim-majority areas has been undermined by its own unforced errors. Breathing room can only be found in a relaxation of tensions between India and Pakistan as well as in a relaxation of New Delhi’s grip on the Valley. And yet, the moral imperative of associating with the Kashmir cause and the instinct to inflame India’s Achilles heel have long been staples of Pakistan’s existence.

Waiting for the next crisis

The potential for new crises exists because the pall cast by nuclear weapons has not yet encouraged sustained efforts to improve ties between India and Pakistan. Nor has it yet concretised the “ugly stability” short of warfare predicted by Ashley Tellis. Diplomatic efforts to normalise ties are easily blocked – perhaps at this point by minor acts of violence that do not rise to the level of a crisis.

If Uri doesn’t qualify, the next major crisis on the subcontinent – if there is one – may well be sparked by another attack against an iconic structure in or near a metropolitan area in India. Those who hate India enough to carry out such an attack hate its promise and rise, so the target of their attack might again symbolise India’s rising power and connectivity to the world.

There are no shortage of soft targets in India, no shortage of means to inflict damage and no shortage of recruits to carry out attacks. Would another dramatic attack against a symbol of India’s rising power or an equivalent outrage prompt a strong military response? I still hold to a conclusion reached five years ago – that “the reasons for India’s prior restraint despite severe provocations remain in play and in some cases have become more pronounced.”

One factor pointing in the direction of continued restraint is the absence of significant military targets for India across the Kashmir divide. Targets associated with violent extremist groups in southern Punjab remain obvious, but continue to pose serious risks of escalation – the other key factor pointing toward restraint. Rawalpindi does not need a single additional “tactical” nuclear weapon to underscore this message. Fighting Pakistan remains a detour to India’s rise. And yet continued forbearance by New Delhi cannot be taken for granted, as is now being tested by the carnage at Uri.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center.