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

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

The crackle of gunfire in central New Delhi on the morning of December 13, 2001 started a new chapter in India and Pakistan’s tortured history. Outside India’s stately Parliament House, five heavily armed intruders exchanged fire with security guards. Inside, much of that country’s leadership—its Vice President, cabinet ministers, and scores of parliamentarians—rushed for safety. After a fierce half hour, the guns fell silent. Twelve were dead, including the attackers, and eighteen injured. No political leader was harmed.

Investigations in the following days revealed that the gunmen slipped past the parliament complex’s outer gate in a sedan disguised as an official vehicle and opened fire after failing to gain entry to the parliament itself. The gunmen were quickly linked by the Government of India to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist outfit known to operate from Pakistan. For the next ten months, India and Pakistan mobilized nearly a million soldiers to the border separating the two nuclear neighbors, and to the Line of Control dividing the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Twice, in January 2002 and then again after another brazen terrorist attack in May 2002, it appeared war was imminent.

In the half decade since the confrontation, prominent academics have concluded that India and Pakistan never neared the brink. However, this certainty in the infallibility of deterrence obscures the fact that we know little about the deliberations of India’s war cabinet during those ten harrowing months, and even less about Pakistan’s calculations during the standoff. This essay, based upon interviews with two former members of India’s Cabinet Committee on Security as well as other senior Indian national security officials, begins to fill in the details of how and why India’s leaders pursued the strategy they did during the standoff.

The picture that emerges from these interviews is not, however, that of a clear crystal ball; on the contrary, neither the Bomb nor the triggering event of the crisis induced clarity into Indian decision-making. Like many key government officials during times of crisis, Indian leaders often were not on the same page—failing to communicate, perceiving key events differently, and championing different courses of action during the crisis. Indeed, during critical periods, Indian leaders appear to have held disparate views and disagreed on such fundamental issues as Pakistan’s likely responses to possible Indian strategies and whether India was pursuing an escalatory or de-escalatory strategy.