Why you should care
Tensions are high on the nuclear-armed subcontinent, where international intervention has worked in the past. But will it in the Trump era?
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
When the latest India-Pakistan flare-up arose over disputed Kashmir, my mind went back to Christmas Eve, 2001. My family was urging me to get to the dinner table, but I was in the secure home office I had as CIA’s then-deputy director. I was on an encrypted phone giving a situation report to the National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other national security officials. The situation concerned the mobilization of military forces by India and Pakistan along their border and in the disputed territory of Kashmir following attacks by Pakistani militants on the Indian Parliament and the legislative assembly in Kashmir. The overriding concern was, as always in disputes between these two rivals, that the dispute could escalate, with the danger of going nuclear.
That once again must be at the forefront of everyone’s mind as the latest chapter in this long-running conflict plays out. Kashmir has been a flashpoint since 1947 and the subcontinent’s partition into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan following independence from Britain. When the then-ruler of Kashmir (also Muslim-majority) wavered between affiliation with India or Pakistan, Pakistani fighters pushed into Kashmir. This drew in Indian troops, and the fighting eventually settled along the so-called Line of Control, dividing Kashmir state in two. The U.N. called for demilitarizing Kashmir and holding a plebiscite on its future status. Neither ever occurred, and the argument has taken the two countries to war or to the brink on numerous occasions.
The latest flare-up resulted from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declaring on Aug. 5 that the province is no longer autonomous and incorporating the Indian-administered part formally into India. Pakistan furiously denounced the move, downgraded diplomatic relations and worried publicly about possible detention camps and “genocide” for Muslims.
… there is a record of these disputes getting out of control and requiring external intervention to defuse.
Prime Minister Modi was probably motivated by a mix of domestic and foreign policy considerations. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the leading Hindu nationalist party and the move will be popular with his base — and will help offset Modi’s inability so far to push up employment numbers (just as Putin’s seizure of Crimea helped obscure Russia’s economic woes). Moreover, this is a region where countries see their interests intricately wired together, and Modi undoubtedly is thinking also of Afghanistan, whose future is now in play via U.S. diplomatic talks with the Taliban. He probably sees a possible Afghanistan settlement potentially strengthening Pakistan’s hand, given the ties it has traditionally maintained with the Taliban. India always fears that Islamabad will feel emboldened when it has the “strategic depth” Pakistan thinks it gains via strong influence in Afghanistan. Hovering in the background is China, which has long had close economic and defense ties with Pakistan and tensions with India — hence India’s recent warning to Beijing to keep its hands off. Few regions rival South Asia when it comes to interwoven power politics!
Is there justifiable concern that this could escalate to war? It is doubtful either side wants that, but there is a record of these disputes getting out of control and requiring external intervention to defuse. In this case, the most likely trigger would be terrorist attacks on Indian targets by groups Pakistan always claims, not very credibly, that it cannot control. Anything approaching the magnitude of the 2008 attacks on hotels and other targets in Mumbai by the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba that killed 164 people would almost certainly push India to the breaking point.
When these disputes escalate, they typically move to large conventional mobilization. The fear then is that Pakistan might be pushed over the nuclear threshold if it began to lose a conventional fight, in which India would have an edge in terms of manpower and weaponry. India has for years held to a “no first use” nuclear doctrine but just this week hinted that it may set that aside — yet another pressure tactic. The two sides are nearly equally matched with nuclear weapons — most estimates give each something in the range of 130-150 warheads. India last year launched its first nuclear submarine, and Pakistan is working on sea-launched cruise missiles.
Here’s something else that adds an additional element of worry: In the past, influential members of the international community have stepped in to exert a calming and restraining influence. In that 2001-02 confrontation, for example, President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Japanese Premier Junichiro Koizumi all weighed in while other officials such as U.S. Secretary of State Powell and his deputy were in near-continuous contact with both sides. Back in 1990, the White House sent then-Deputy National Security Advisor Bob Gates to caution restraint.
In today’s divided world, though, it is hard to imagine such a diplomatic marshaling. President Donald Trump, frankly, has neutralized his influence with the gaffe of claiming that Modi had asked him to mediate, which Modi immediately denied (India has for decades opposed any mediation, insisting Kashmir is a strictly bilateral issue). And without credible U.S. engagement and leadership, it is hard to muster much diplomatic horsepower. Moreover, the U.S. “honest broker” role is probably weaker because of its evident need right now for Pakistan’s help in resolving Afghanistan issues.
If the dispute escalates further, the U.S. will doubtless weigh in, but in all likelihood the outcome this time will depend more on local restraint — or lack of it — than on an international hand.