“Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”
– Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon, 1946
Pakistan and India have been interlocked in a hostile relationship since their inception in 1947, with both the sides going to war over the disputed territory of Kashmir thrice in their 72 years history. The atmosphere of mutual discontent coupled with other national motivations eventually led to the nuclearization of South Asia, thus complicating the already hostile security environment.
As suggested by the Stability-Instability Paradox, the region did not witness any direct full scale conflict in the aftermath of nuclearization, but still, a number of crises erupted over the contested region of Kashmir. Some recent events in this regard, however, brought the nuclear-armed adversaries on the brink of a nuclear war.
On February 14, 2019, a convoy carrying Indian paramilitary forces was ambushed in the Pulwama district of Indian Occupied Kashmir. Allegedly claimed by the banned terrorist outfit Jaish e Muhammad, it resulted in the loss of life of 40 personnel. India accused Pakistan of perpetuating the attack, a claim which Islamabad strongly denied while vowing to retaliate in case of any Indian misadventure. A few days later, India violated Pakistan’s airspace with her fighter jets crossing into Pakistan while claiming to have hit a terrorist hideout killing 350 people. Indian claims were subsequently debunked by ISPR and open-source satellite imagery as it was revealed that IAF jets had hastily dropped payload while being chased back by PAF and it had merely landed on a hillside, damaging just a few trees and killing a crow in the process.
Pakistan vowed to retaliate on a time and at a place of its own choosing. It turned out to be the very next day as PAF engaged 6 Indian military targets in Indian Occupied Kashmir, while downing two Indian jets and capturing a pilot alive. The following days were clouded by a threat of possible missile attacks by India, of which Pakistan vowed to retaliate with three times the force. Fortunately, the situation deescalated in the upcoming days because of the peace gesture of releasing the IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan and the involvement of a few third parties who urged both sides to exercise restraint.
It is noteworthy to consider that this was the highest level of escalation between any two nuclear armed adversaries since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the first time that Indian fighter jets had crossed into Pakistan since the 1971 war. The event showcased the potential of Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint with the potential of causing a nuclear war in the region. Though the BJP led ultranationalist government was able to utilize this anti-Pakistan rhetoric for political mileage in order to get re-elected in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
These events were followed by a vigorous debate that whether deterrence had failed in South Asia? Whether the dynamics of deterrence in South Asia (where the nuclear armed adversaries are in the immediate neighborhood) are somehow different to the Cold War model (US and USSR being thousands of miles away)?
Some people argue that there was not much signaling regarding nuclear weapons apart from brief mentions by PM Imran Khan in his 3 addresses and a meeting of the National Command Authority- the nuclear decision-making body of Pakistan. Pakistan response to Indian actions was proportional and well calculated, with the PAF just engaging limited targets while destroying two fighter jets. Had it been precision strikes on Indian military targets, it would have easily been considered as a provocative act, thus leading to the outbreak of war. The threat of nuclear weapons was always lurked in the background.
Similarly, Pakistan’s decision not to target the Indian submarine detected near its territorial waters and the release of IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman as a peace gesture further helped to deescalate the situation. However, the Indian ambitions to establish a new normal in the region was turned to ashes due to Pakistan’s response.
Even a limited nuclear exchange between the countries would have had serious implications that would transcend the territorial borders. The radiations would spread throughout the region, a nuclear winter could kill more than two billion people while the smoke clouds would cause the temperature patterns to remain low for many decades.
Both the countries have traditionally relied on third parties to act as a mediator in times of crisis– a role traditionally played by the US. But the statements given by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the National Security Advisor John Bolton during the entire episode seemed not that of an unbiased third party but rather showed US’ tilt towards its strategic partner India, ringing the alarm bells for Islamabad. Also, the desire of US to embolden India as an alternative to the rising China suffered a great setback as India was not even able to counter a country six time smaller than itself.
With all the repercussions in mind, there is certainly no space for a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Both the countries need to engage in mutual confidence building measures in order to resolve outstanding issues while coexisting peacefully. An idea sounding too utopian till the BJP-led Hindu nationalist government remains in power.