To The Brink: Indian Decision-Making and the 2001-2002 Standoff

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By Alex Stolar – Pakistan is grappling with multiple crises simultaneously: a political crisis to determine an arrangement of governance in which President Pervez Musharraf seeks to share, but continues to exercise power; a resilient and growing insurgency emanating from Pakistan’s tribal belt; and a growing economic crisis.  Yet one source of instability in South Asia, Kashmir, is hardly in the news.  Islamabad and New Delhi, fortunately, share an interest in avoiding another downturn in bilateral relations. 

Only six years ago, however, India and Pakistan nearly went to war over Kashmir.  Both countries mobilized nearly a million troops to their border following a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.  The attack was later linked by the Government of India to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant outfit widely believed to operate from Pakistan.  The standoff lasted nearly ten months.  The confrontation was the largest military mobilization since World War II and, from the perspective of US interests, it also undermined efforts to capture fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. 
Few have a good sense of how close both sides actually were to war.  Pakistan almost surely did not want to fight a war with India in 2002.  With America’s Operation Enduring Freedom in high gear on its western border and with two of Pakistan’s elite army corps positioned along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Islamabad was poorly prepared to defend against an Indian attack.  India’s intentions, however, appeared ambiguous at the time and remain difficult to interpret several years after the standoff concluded.
In a 2006 interview, Brajesh Mishra, who served as India’s National Security Adviser during the standoff, said that in January 2002, “There was a unanimous decision to let Pakistan know this kind of thing would not be tolerated.  A unanimous decision to mobilize.  A unanimous decision to cross the Line of Control and the border.  The Americans came-‘Sir, please listen to Musharraf’-they had some indications on what he would say.  So we said ‘OK.’  After [General Musharraf’s January 12, 2002 speech decrying terrorism in the name of the Kashmiri cause,] the decision was to postpone any action across the border and the Line of Control-all this was unanimous.”  Mishra asserted that in January 2002, “we were on the point of launching a full scale war.  Whether surgical strikes or this or that-it would have been a part of the campaign.”  He added that “it would have been all out war.”
In a separate 2006 interview, however, Jaswant Singh, India’s Minister of External Affairs during the crisis, suggested otherwise: “I know there wasn’t even a risk of a full-fledged war or crossing the boundary or the Line of Control.”  Singh and Mishra’s accounts are very different.  Only additional studies of the 2001-2002 standoff and the release of classified documents from the period will help to reconcile these contradictory recollections and provide a better understanding of how close India and Pakistan were to war.
What conclusions can be drawn about the standoff?  First, nuclear weapons may help stabilize an adversarial relationship but they certainly do not prevent severe crises that can lead to conflict, inadvertently or deliberately. 
Second, while notions of “limited” war are a staple of the deterrence literature, carrying out a limited military action under the nuclear umbrella would entail substantial risks.  Statesmen and generals considering launching a “limited war” would have to consider what factors would keep a limited military action limited, and what factors would cause a limited military action to escalate.
Third, message management during a crisis is both essential and difficult.  Disciplined message management can help prevent unintended escalation during a crisis.  National leaders, however, must convey information to multiple domestic and international audiences during a crisis, and doing so effectively and precisely is extraordinarily challenging. 
Finally, facilitating interagency cooperation is a vital but complicated task for heads of state and principals in the midst of a crisis.   Even during the best of times, coordinating complex government bureaucracies in the formulation and implementation of policy is difficult.  Periods of crisis strain government bureaucracies at a time when nimble and coordinated responses to complex challenges are most needed.
Almost six years have passed since the 2001-2002 standoff came to a close.  Both India and Pakistan have a significant interest in preventing the current peace process’s progress from being reversed.    In September 2006, India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and President Musharraf announced a new joint mechanism that would facilitate cooperation between the two countries in countering terrorism.  While the joint mechanism has yielded little so far, it might be a way to build confidence between both countries and to devise strategies to thwart new attacks.
This new and promising chapter in India and Pakistan’s tortured history might not have been possible, ironically, without the ten tense months that followed the attack on the Indian Parliament.  As Brajesh Mishra noted in an interview, “it is only after the mobilization of 2002 that the peace process could begin.  This was the realization: Having gone to the brink, a more rational view prevailed.” 
To The Brink: Indian Decision-Making and the 2001-2002 Standoff is a new Stimson Center occasional paper which begins to shed light on this crucial period.  To read the full report, click here.
Photo Credit: Jaipal Singh



Alex Stolar was a Scoville Fellow with the South Asia project at the  Stimson Center. 

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