India and Pakistan stand once again on the brink of war.
The moment is a precarious one and the stakes are high, not just for the region
but potentially for the world. The United States has burgeoning interests in the
subcontinent since the war in Afghanistan, and renewed Indo-Pakistani conflict
could divert needed resources from the effort to stamp out terrorism. Incautious
statements from both Indian and Pakistani leaders have also raised fears that a
nuclear exchange may be in the offing. The consequences would be far-reaching and
devastating. Nonetheless, only three years after their last confrontation
prompted frantic U.S. diplomatic overtures and direct personal intervention by
President Bill Clinton, these two nuclear-armed adversaries have, since the
beginning of this year, been staring each other down across their shared border.
The trigger for the current crisis was an incident last December, when
operatives of two Pakistan-based insurgent groups attacked the Indian parliament.
Security guards managed to keep the terrorists away from legislators, but in the
shootout that followed, six Indians were killed along with the five attackers.
Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, condemned the attack, but his
principal military spokesman suggested that India had assaulted its own
parliament in an effort to implicate Pakistan. Under intense pressure from India
and the United States, Musharraf banned the two groups responsible for the
attacks and promised to squelch the activities of other terrorists operating from
inside Pakistan. He refused, however, to hand over 20 individuals whom the Indian
government accuses of involvement in a range of terrorist activities on Indian
soil. In the intervening months, it turns out, Musharraf has also failed to end
his country's support for terrorism in Kashmir, even while he has supported the
U.S. effort to root out al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters along his western border
Indeed, although he initially cracked down on several of Pakistan's militant
Islamic organizations, Musharraf looked the other way when the groups' members
resumed activities under new names. In response, India has adopted a strategy of
coercive diplomacy, massing close to half a million troops along the
India-Pakistan border and the so-called Line of Control that divides the disputed
state of Jammu and Kashmir. India's leaders have made clear that for New Delhi to
reverse the military buildup, the infiltration of terrorists from Pakistan into
India must end.
Indo-Pakistani relations have a long and troubled history, of which the
current crisis is merely the latest chapter. Since both independent states
emerged from the detritus of the British empire in 1947, they have fought four
wars (1947-48, 1965, 1971, and 1999). Their most intractable conflict is the one
over Kashmir, the mostly Muslim state whose Hindu ruler chose to join his lands
to India in 1947. Pakistan contested that arrangement and invaded the territory,
touching off the first Indo-Pakistani war. By the end, Pakistan controlled about
one-third of Kashmir. The status of the state has remained unresolved ever since.
The Indo-Pakistani conflict lay mostly dormant for several decades. During the
1970s and 1980s, the Indian government sought to win the hearts and minds of the
Kashmiris by investing in education, mass media, and social welfare. Yet at the
same time, the authorities engaged in considerable political chicanery, as they
attempted to prevent a secessionist elite from taking power through the electoral
process. By 1989, these policies, combined with fundamental social changes within
Indian-controlled Kashmir, had helped spark an ethno-religious insurgency in the
fabled Kashmir Valley.
Pakistan's political and military leadership saw a vital opportunity in
Kashmir's brimming reservoir of discontent with Indian misrule. Over the next
several years, Pakistan's military intelligence organization, the Inter-Services
Intelligence Agency, provided Kashmiri rebels with military training, logistical
support, and physical sanctuaries. The Pakistani authorities also brought in
disaffected Afghans, radical Arabs, and Pakistani jihadis to support and extend
the uprising. By the mid-1990s, a spontaneous and largely disorganized uprising
had been transformed into a well-orchestrated insurgency. The principal local
insurgent organization, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), found itself
caught in a vicious vise: It faced relentless military pressure from the Indian
security forces at the same time as it suffered routine depredations at the hands
of Pakistan-sponsored militant Islamic organizations. By the mid-1990s, the JKLF
had eschewed violence as a political strategy for fear of being destroyed on the
As Pakistan-sponsored, nonindigenous groups came to dominate the insurgency,
Kashmiri support for it subsided. That moment was not lost on New Delhi, which
conducted a successful election for the state's legislature in 1996. An
unprecedented number of Kashmiris turned out to vote, and foreign and domestic
observers concluded that the election was mostly free of fraud. Many Kashmiris
greeted the emergence of a popularly elected government with considerable
optimism: After more than half a decade of political turmoil and civil violence,
perhaps some modicum of law and order might soon return to their disputed state.
Indeed, by the late 1990s, the insurgency was clearly fading.
But when both India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices in May 1998, Kashmir
would feel the aftershocks. The hawkish Indian home minister, L. K. Advani,
cavalierly announced that Pakistan's ability to foment mischief in Kashmir was
now effectively constrained. That statement, designed to instill fear in the
minds of risk-prone Pakistani decision makers, revealed Advani's myopic
understanding of the strategic significance -- as well as the military
limitations -- of nuclear weapons. For although nuclear weapons could dramatically
reduce the likelihood of full-scale war, they could also create permissive
conditions for more low-level conflict -- a situation that political science
scholars refer to as the "stability-instability paradox."
Between May and June of 1999, the subcontinent saw the first test of this
paradox. During the preceding winter, units of Pakistan's Northern Light Infantry
had penetrated Indian territory in a successful surprise attack at three points
along the Line of Control. The waning of Kashmir's insurgency had led India's
military circles to grow complacent and vulnerable. On the Pakistani side,
tensions between the civilian regime of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the
military had made reviving the flagging insurgency politically attractive.
Moreover, Pakistani decision makers surmised that given the nuclear risks, their
Indian counterparts would be loath to punish Pakistan by expanding the scope of
the conflict. They were right: Out of fear of nuclear escalation, India kept the
conflict confined to the areas of incursion. Ultimately, significant Indian military
pressure, combined with forceful U.S. intercession, persuaded Sharif to withdraw
his troops in late July 1999.
That debacle proved fatal for Sharif. Three months later, Musharraf, the chief
of army staff and the architect of the incursion, seized power in a bloodless
coup. A renewed burst of Pakistani support for the Islamic militants soon
followed. Terrorist attacks increasingly expanded outside the Kashmir Valley to
neighboring regions of India, as the December attack on the parliament building
in New Delhi so brazenly demonstrated.
Last month, India's frustrations with Musharraf's regime reached their apex
after a May 14 terrorist attack killed 34 Indians, including a number of wives
and children of military personnel in the Kashmiri city of Jammu. Within days,
militants also killed Abdul Ghani Lone, a 70-year-old moderate Kashmiri
separatist leader who had indicated a willingness to begin talks with New Delhi.
Musharraf publicly condemned these attacks while also insinuating that both
episodes were the handiwork of al-Qaeda forces. But despite the strong urging of
the United States and other Western powers, the Pakistani military leadership has
evinced little willingness to curb the terror emanating from its lands. India's
prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, has consequently assumed a more bellicose
Pakistan's persistent dissembling on the question of military support to
terrorists, and India's growing impatience and belligerence, have stoked fears of
a conventional war between these two long-standing foes. Concern that any war
between India and Pakistan could escalate to the nuclear level has prompted calls
for restraint from all corners of the world. Rightly so: A nuclear war in South
Asia would produce horrific human loss and a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented
magnitude. It would also breach the unspoken post-Nagasaki taboo on the use of
nuclear weapons. The rupture of this fire wall would make the world a far, far
more dangerous place.
War between India and Pakistan would also hobble the U.S.-led effort to
eviscerate the remnants of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, many of whom have taken
refuge in the poorly administered, trackless reaches of Pakistan's Northwest
Frontier Province. As Pakistan's army gets increasingly drawn into a conflict with
India, its ability to cooperate with the United States will inevitably dissipate.
Meanwhile, the United States may find itself in the singularly unenviable position
of having to choose between an uncertain but necessary ally, Pakistan, and a
long-term potential strategic partner and democracy, India.
The most immediate interest of the United States, clearly, is to forestall and
ideally prevent another war between India and Pakistan. In all likelihood, U.S.
pressure on both capitals will lead the two states to step away from the brink.
Then the United States must do two things: It must forcefully persuade Pakistan
to eschew support for the Islamic militants in Kashmir and simultaneously
convince India that a lasting peace can emerge only if the genuine grievances of
the Muslim population in the Kashmir Valley are adequately addressed. Adopting
these two negotiating principles will be neither easy nor painless. But for India
and Pakistan, there is no other path away from the precipice.