It has been a tense time for nuke-watchers in Asia. Just as the phantom hopes of a denuclearization agreement on the Korean Peninsula were being dashed in Vietnam, a very real escalation was taking place in South Asia between nuclear rivals — and neighbors — India and Pakistan.
After getting as close to a real nuclear conflagration as we probably have since the Cuban missile crisis, the good news is that tensions in South Asia now seem to be in de-escalation mode. This, of course, is a good thing. But this conflict most certainly will leave the world less safe than it was before. If the Doomsday Clock has not been reset yet, it should.
Clearly, there is much about this ongoing crisis that we do not know. And too much that is no more than made-up nonsense. So, let us start with a timeline of what we do know:
- On Feb. 14, as many as 40 Indian paramilitary police are killed in a suicide attack in Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir. India claims that the militant outfit Jaish-i-Mohammed, that it alleges operates from Pakistan, is responsible for the attack. Pakistan expresses outrage at India’s “baseless allegations” and says the outfit was banned in 2002.
- Sensing the mood in India, on Feb. 19, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan says he is willing to cooperate with India on an investigation but would respond in kind to any attacks on Pakistan. In the midst of an intense election campaign, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ups the volume on promises of a “strong response.”
- On Feb. 26, Indian Air Force jets enter Pakistani territory and claim to have bombed a militant training camp. Pakistan denies the claim but acknowledges the airstrike.
- On Feb. 27, Pakistan releases video evidence of at least one shot-down Indian jet and a captured Indian Air Force pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
- On Feb. 28, in a dramatic address to the parliament, Prime Minister Khan announces that Pakistan will release the Indian pilot the next day, without condition, as a “peace gesture.” The pilot is handed back, with India portraying it as a sign of Pakistan’s isolation and weakness.
- Since then, infringements of airspace have subsided but intensified shelling across the Kashmir Line of Control continues, killing soldiers on both sides.
- In India, this now has become the rallying-cry of Prime Minister Modi’s reelection bid, with promises of revenge and retribution. In Pakistan, the mood is of projecting Prime Minister Khan as a world statesman, even a potential Nobel Peace Prize candidate.
For those who insist on seeing a silver lining, there is one. Both Pakistan and India can, and have, claimed victory: military, diplomatic, moral. Domestic constituencies in both countries fiercely believe it is so. In India, Modi may just have won himself an election. In Pakistan, Khan’s beleaguered government suddenly looks statesmanlike. Neither would like to risk losing this sweet spot with further adventures. Hence, a key condition for de-escalation is fulfilled.
The cloud cover, however, remains ominous. There is, in the first instance, the fog of hyperventilating belligerence and distrust that has been fanned by information technology. In India, mainstream as well as social media have gone berserk in an orgy of hyper-jingoism. In Pakistan, their counterparts seem more docile, but only by comparison. They certainly can match the Indian media’s self-righteousness blow-by-blow, even as they bask in bouts of gloating.
However, there are at least two more reasons — deeper and more structural — why we should all be worried, very worried, about what just happened in South Asia.
First, ground realities as well as the strategic calculus between India and Pakistan have fundamentally shifted to what can only be called a “new abnormal.” By sending fighter jets — rather than ground artillery — deep into Pakistan territory, Modi wanted to change the status quo of response. He did, including by forcing Pakistan’s hand into a retaliatory air operation into Indian territory. A downed Indian jet and captured Indian pilot might not have been the bounties Pakistan was looking for, but they have forever changed the baseline of what either country will define as “success.”
The so-called “surgical strikes” from India that followed the 2016 Uri attack — whose most important feature was that Pakistan had not responded in kind — no longer are the baseline model. Fasten your seatbelts, South Asia: The baseline of what counts as a strike, as well as the counterstrike to expect, has been ratcheted up. As Michael Kugelman puts it, a future nuclear exchange has become “a far less remote prospect.”
Second, it was not just this crisis that festered because the rest of the world — particularly the United States — was distracted, disinterested and disengaged; every future crisis could suffer a similar fate, and to far more disastrous results. With time we will learn, no doubt, of many behind-the-scene efforts by major players to diffuse the crisis, some real, some exaggerated. But the fact is that during the crisis itself, the silence of the international community was deafening.
Moeed Yusuf, in his excellent book “Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments,” has argued that deterrence in South Asia has required third-party intervention and a united stand from the major powers pushing the two countries to exercise restraint. This time there were no visible signs of brokering: no shuttle diplomacy, no high-powered arm-twisting; neither word of carrots, or sticks. Rightly or wrongly, this seems to have left India thinking it could push harder, and Pakistan believing it was on its own. The result was both sides climbing a further notch on the escalation ladder.
The international community seems, belatedly, to be awakening to the crisis it mostly slept through. But one has to wonder if its legitimacy and space for brokering have been compromised.
Finally, there are lessons in all of this for Pakistan and India. But not easy ones.
For Pakistan, this was another stark reminder that the charge of supporting militant organizations sticks very easily on it. Right or wrong, nearly no one in Pakistan believes the Pulwama attack or India’s response to it was motivated by militant outfits in Pakistan. Very few outside of Pakistan believe it wasn’t. There is no greater foreign policy challenge for Pakistan than changing this, both by acting within its own borders and by convincing the international community that those actions have been taken.
For India, the lesson not to forget is the one that is at the very root of all that has happened: Kashmir. This crisis, in the run-up to Pulwama as well as in its aftermath, once again has put the plight of Kashmiris in sharp relief. And there is just no way to look at the human rights situation in Kashmir that makes India look good. Even though the weight of seven decades of historical evidence stands against it, one would so desperately want to believe that maybe this crisis will jolt the major powers to work with India and Pakistan to find a resolution to the Kashmir dispute. Maybe, a solution that puts the interests of the people of Kashmir first.