Two years ago this week, I touched down in New Delhi, groggy from my intercontinental flight from Washington, D.C. I looked forward to a quiet two-day layover en route to a South Asian crisis wargame that I was hosting in Sri Lanka. The next morning I awoke to the news that India had just conducted the first cross-border airstrike on Pakistan’s mainland in five decades, and found myself in the midst of a serious, real-life crisis.
Over the next 48 hours, India and Pakistan would exchange airstrikes resulting in the shooting down of two aircraft and the capture of a pilot against the backdrop of reported missile threats and readied nuclear forces. Privately, many American officials expressed alarm that events would spin out of control, and some later acknowledged that senior U.S. officials basically ignored the crisis. Escalation was controlled, mostly by luck.
While yesterday’s announcement of a ceasefire by India and Pakistan offers a welcome development after almost two years of dangerously escalating violence and fraught tensions, this does not warrant complacency. Those who work on South Asian security issues expect another crisis is inevitable — one that will test the Biden administration.
While Washington has made a strategic wager on India to reap dividends for U.S. competition with China, it still retains a significant interest in ensuring future South Asian crises do not spiral out of control and risk even a limited nuclear exchange. Such a course of events would jeopardize fundamental U.S. interests, including the non-use of nuclear weapons, the lives of U.S. citizens, and that very strategic bet on India itself. If the 2019 crisis has taught us anything, it is that being an impartial bystander is not an option.
Read the full article in War On The Rocks.