The South Asian Threat

One might think that after two devastating World Wars, the rise of nuclear technology, and the several proxy-wars in the latter half of the twenty-first century, we would live in an era of peace and harmony. Nonetheless, the threat of violence remains uncomfortably imminent: the United States and North Korea compete to intimidate each other, Israel’s relationship with much of the Middle-East remains uneasy, and Afghanistan continues to struggle with the forces of terrorism. Such is also the case in South Asia, where two nuclear powers interact in conditions so hostile that the possibility of war looms large. It is common knowledge that India and Pakistan share a strained relationship. But how destructive can war between these two countries exactly be?

Is considering the possibility of a war between India and Pakistan rational? Since 1947, the two countries have been involved in four major wars that have cumulatively led to the loss of approximately 27,700 lives. In addition to these four wars, both countries have relied on terrorism and espionage. The age-old dispute for control over Kashmir is more topical today than it has ever been, characterized in part by human right violations in India and terrorist activity in Pakistan. As recently as September 2016, India’s Home Minister called Pakistan a “terrorist state” following a terrorist attack on an Indian army base in Uri. Later that month, India retaliated by entering Pakistani-controlled territory to attack terrorist havens in a series of “surgical strikes”. Presently, dialogue between the two countries has been suspended, as military skirmishes remain frequent. Therefore, writing off the possibility of armed conflict between India and Pakistan is as absurd as making the claim that the United States and North Korea share a cordial relationship.

India and Pakistan last fought a war in 1999, and as devastating as it was for the two countries, the rest of the world had seen much worse. Eighteen years later, however, much has changed. Pakistan ran its first nuclear bomb test in 1998, and has now amassed 140 nuclear warheads – the sixth highest globally. India has a comparable inventory with 130 nuclear warheads. If push comes to shove, both countries are fairly capable of inflicting damage on a massive scale. While it might seem rather improbable for the two countries to resort to nuclear warfare, the history of conflict in the region is far from conventional. India is an established democracy – the country is largely in control of its military. The role of the military is well-defined, and the institution of the military itself has never transgressed its boundaries. Pakistan, on the other hand, has demonstrated the characteristics of a garrison state – a state modelled on militaristic lines, where the military has a disproportionate amount of institutional power and often acts out of self-interest. The fact that Pakistan has witnessed several military coups corroborates this. This begs the question – is Pakistan’s military motivated enough to wage war against India?

Pakistan’s militants are committed to the cause of animosity between India and Pakistan. A history of terrorist attacks conducted by Pakistani terrorist groups in India lends credence to the claim that a well-oiled machinery operating out of Pakistan serves as a severe restriction on peacebuilding efforts between the two countries. A more contentious claim however, often made by India and even Afghanistan, is that these terrorist outfits are sponsored, financially and otherwise, by the Pakistani military’s intelligence wing - the ISI. On several occasions, when the two countries have been on the brink of a detente, Pakistani militants have effectively used terrorism to negate all the progress made in reconciliation efforts. For instance, soon after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan in December 2015, a Pakistani terrorist outfit attacked an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot. In 2008, the Pakistani Finance Minister at the time, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, was in India. Under usual circumstances, such dialogue between the two countries might correspond with a pinnacle in diplomacy. During his visit however, a group of 10 Pakistani militants took the city of Mumbai under siege for four days; the official tally for casualties stands at 164.

For the sake of objectivity, India’s accusations against Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism mustbe viewed with adequate scepticism. Instead, opinions of those at the periphery of the conflict between the two countries should be considered. As per a leaked British Ministry of Defence paper in 2006, the ISI has backed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In fact, by admission of Pakistan’s former President, Pervez Musharraf, a nexus between retired ISI operatives and terrorist outfits regionally could possibly exist. Several scholars, such as Frederic Grare, have suggested that “rogue elements” exist in the ISI. Additionally, Pakistan has been known to accommodate terrorists in the past – Osama Bin Laden is perhaps the most infamous example of this. India alleges that Dawood Ibrahim, the mastermind behind several terrorist attacks on Indian soil, lives a luxurious life in Karachi; this claim is all but explicitly accepted by Pakistan. The narrative is fairly clear – while the extent might be difficult to establish, the ISI is certainly complicit, if not directly involved, in terrorist activity.

History suggests that the Pakistani military has the resources and motivation to terrorize India. In fact, its motivation is perhaps as strong as it has ever been, with Kashmir serving as a focal point today. Nonetheless, history also suggests that India, when provoked, is capable of defending itself – if there is such a thing as victory in warfare, then India has emerged victorious in all of the four wars it has fought with Pakistan, albeit with much collateral damage. In 2017 however, these two countries are not just regional powers; India has grown tremendously to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, while Pakistan has become one of the strongest nuclear powers globally. The change in status for both these countries has implications for the geostrategic aspect of the conflict. India has a new rival in the North, one that is stronger and much more intimidating – China. Pakistan, on the other hand, has found an ally in China, thereby further complicating the dynamics of its relationship with India. However, India too has found itself an ally that is almost certainly the world’s most powerful country in terms of military strength, and has vested interest in India due to its “Contain-China” policy – the United States of America. Behind the scenes of this conflict is a much more complicated web, which has made the South Asian conflict more global than it previously was.   

War between India and Pakistan would be irrational and detrimental to the world at large. The threat of unconventional methods of warfare has compelled both countries to avoid a direct military conflict in the recent past. Instead, there has been a surge in minor military skirmishes and and the rise of a proxy-battle. However, if the grounds for avoiding full-fledged war is simply the threat of mutually assured destruction through nuclear warfare, the conditions are far from conducive to resolution. The animosity between India and Pakistan has been so deeply embedded into the politics of the region over the last seven decades that there seems to be no end to it in sight. Until strides are made in the direction of peacebuilding, war remains as likely in the region as anywhere else in the world. Given the potency of their militaries, this can only spell disaster.