Policy Paper

Learning From South Asia’s Many Crises

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Editor’s note: The Carnegie Endowment convened its 2011 International Nuclear Policy Conferenceon March 28-29 in Washington, D.C.  This essay is an adaptation and condensation of the author’s remarks in a panel discussion on “Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia after Mumbai.”  For a full transcript, see
South Asia experienced two crises with the advent of covert nuclear weapon capabilities and three more after India and Pakistan carried out underground tests of nuclear weapon designs.  This progression was not surprising: when nuclear weapons are acquired because of serious security concerns, national insecurity is usually aggravated.
The first nuclear-tinged crisis in South Asia, sparked by Operation Brasstacks in 1986-87, was initiated by decisions made in India.  Some have surmised that the Indian Chief of Army Staff, K. Sundarji, sought to prompt a devastating military defeat of Pakistan before it could acquire nuclear weapons.  Four more crises followed, all initiated by decisions made in Pakistan: in 1990 over Kashmir; in 1999, when Northern Light Infantry troops occupied the heights across the Kashmir divide, sparking a limited war; in 2001-2002, during the “Twin Peaks” crisis initiated by an attack on India’s parliament building; and in 2008, when militants trained and equipped in Pakistan struck iconic targets in Mumbai.
The past four crises have been initiated by actors in Pakistan, a state dissatisfied with the status quo and disgruntled with prevailing trends on the subcontinent.  For the 1990 and Kargil crises, the role of Pakistan’s military and security apparatus were not plausibly deniable.  The involvement and foreknowledge of the highest levels of Pakistan’s military establishment have been harder to establish for the next two crises.
What can be said with confidence is that the authorities in Pakistan did not take serious preventative actions before mass casualty attacks occurred on Indian soil by perpetrators trained, equipped, and based in Pakistan.  It is also clear that the authorities in Pakistan have either been unable or unwilling to take significant actions against those who planned mass casualty attacks.  There have been temporary and polite house detentions, lingering court cases, and no convictions of leading figures.  It is similarly hard for Indian authorities to secure convictions in highly politicized prosecutions.
Another common element of the past four crises is that coalition governments in India have demonstrated uncommon restraint after severe provocations.  New Delhi employed very limited military means for a return to the status quo after the incursions above Kargil.  India’s leaders might have responded in a less cautious way had their forces been unsuccessful in repulsing the Northern Light Infantry’s advances.  The lack of wisdom associated with the Kargil plan and the strong negative responses to Pakistan’s military adventurism suggest that an initiative of this kind is unlikely to be repeated.  
As for the mass casualty attacks directed against targets in New Delhi and Mumbai, very different Indian coalition governments came to the same conclusion: that the benefits of striking back against Pakistan would likely be modest and the risks would likely be great.  Foremost among those risks was the possibility of uncontrolled escalation.  Indian leaders weighed other risks, as well.  Counter-attacks on Pakistani targets could have prompted changes in civil-military relations and in Pakistani domestic politics that would not have been to India’s benefit.  There would also have been very negative repercussions for U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan that would not have served Indian interests.  Other calculations contributed to uncommon Indian restraint, including the undiminished hopes of Indian Prime Ministers to eventually normalize relations with Pakistan.
Nuclear weapons have played a significant part in these crises.  They have emboldened Pakistani decision makers to take crisis-generating risks on the assumption that New Delhi would seek to avoid uncontrolled escalation.  With each succeeding crisis and with India’s growing conventional capabilities, Pakistan’s reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence has grown.  It is clear that Pakistan’s military leadership wants India to think twice and three times about conventional strikes because their nuclear capabilities are growing at a faster pace than India’s. 
Crises can also arise due to the actions of extremist Hindu groups that seek to derail efforts to normalize India-Pakistan relations or to “pay back” Muslims for attacks by groups with ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services.  Attacks by militant Hindu groups, such as the 2007 Samjhauta (Friendship) Express train bombings, may also reoccur.  These attacks usually happen on Indian soil.  They do not disrupt bilateral ties for long periods of time and do not have severe escalatory potential.  In contrast, mass casualty attacks on Indian soil by Muslim extremists based in Pakistan have far more potential to prompt sustained lapses in diplomacy as well as severe crises.  Since 2002, these attacks have been targeted at major Indian cities far away from Jammu and Kashmir.   
What does this suggest for the future? While Kargil-type crises are unlikely to be repeated, unconventional attacks on Indian soil by Pakistani nationals may well reoccur.  If and when the next such attack happens, Washington will resort to a familiar crisis management playbook developed and refined after the last two crises.  How effective this playbook will be depends upon what outcome the Government of India wants and is willing to accept.  The risk-benefit calculus as perceived from New Delhi may be little different from that of the last two crises.  Indeed, it could be far riskier for New Delhi to react militarily to another severe cross-border provocation because the domestic political situation, civil-military relations, and the lack of coherence of the Pakistani state have all deteriorated with each successive crisis.  But domestic political compulsions in India might trump these considerations, overriding concerns about uncontrolled escalation.
Pakistanloses far more than India after mass casualty attacks on Indian soil that can be traced back to groups with links to Pakistan’s security apparatus.  After each crisis, India rebounds and India’s economy resumes its high growth rate.  Pakistan doesn’t rebound after mass casualty attacks.  Its economy becomes increasingly burdened and its domestic political environment deteriorates.  After each crisis sparked by a mass casualty attack on Indian soil linked to Pakistani nationals, U.S.-India relations improve, including bilateral military relations. After each crisis, U.S.-Pakistani relations become more problematic.
Another consequence of this progression of crises is that U.S. crisis management becomes harder.  The “deliverables” expected of Washington’s crisis managers are increasingly suspect.  Promises that have been extracted from Pakistan’s leaders in past crises have turned out to have a limited warranty.  Indian governments have had little faith in these promises, but they were deemed to be satisfactory because New Delhi was disinclined to respond militarily.  The bucket that Washington’s crisis managers have drawn from this well may now be empty.  Another, added reason for the difficulty of U.S. crisis management is that with each successive crisis, the United States is perceived in Pakistan to be less of an honest broker because India is the aggrieved party and because of Washington’s growing closeness to New Delhi.  Nonetheless, Pakistani leaders have no alternative, credible crisis manager.
The next crisis in South Asia will play out in the context of a greater disparity in conventional capability in India’s favor and a greater disparity in nuclear capability in Pakistan’s favor – hardly a good equation for deterrence and crisis stability.  Crisis prevention is therefore of the utmost importance.  India’s intelligence and security services will have failed in their duties if and when another Samjhauta Express-type attack occurs.  Similarly, a highly capable Chief of Army Staff in Pakistan should have the means to know in advance when major operations with a high escalatory potential are being planned, trained for and equipped on Pakistani soil.   Given the negative consequences of such an attack for Pakistan, an Army Chief that fails to stop it ill serves Pakistan’s national security and economic interests.

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