Encouraging Signs, Continuing Dangers

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India and Pakistan have experienced numerous militarized engagements and three wars over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Of particular note is that India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear status has not resolved the security challenges of Kashmir; in fact, it has continued to be a flashpoint for open conflict between the two nuclear powers. New episodes of tension provide an opportunity for reflection on the risks of crisis escalation in South Asia.

The latest crisis episode between India and Pakistan over Kashmir emerged following months of significant unrest in the Kashmir Valley. On September 18, militants attacked an Indian Army base in the Uri sector of Kashmir, which resulted in the deaths of 19 soldiers. Arguing that the militants originated from Pakistan, India accused Pakistan of supporting cross-border terrorism. Amidst a cacophony of media voices and strategic analysts calling for an aggressive response, India began reviewing punitive diplomatic and economic options.

Then, on September 29, India surprised many by for the first time publicly claiming to have conducted surgical strikes on terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control (LoC) in parts of Pakistani-held territory. This move carried escalatory potential especially in an environment of poor information, compressed decision making, and strong incentives for action to appease domestic audiences. However, Pakistan appeared to deflect these pressures by denying that such surgical strikes ever occurred, choosing not to respond and allowing the potential crisis to subside.

American support for India’s position just before the publicizing of surgical strikes may imply at least tacit acceptance. However, it also urged restraint and likely worked behind the scenes to dissuade either side from making a “third move.”

Most American policymakers tend to neglect competitive dynamics in South Asia until a crisis erupts bringing the nuclear-armed rivals to the brink of war. Although American attention quickly returns to other priorities after the abatement of a crisis, there are always lessons to be gleaned before the next inevitable cycle. In this recent case, some features are encouraging for crisis stability, while others could prove troubling in the future.

Read the full article on The Cipher Brief here.

Photo credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory via Flickr.
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