Might India Start the Next South Asia Crisis?
In February 2019, India and Pakistan came dangerously close to the brink of catastrophe. After a terrorist bombing in Kashmir, India carried out air strikes against facilities associated with a militant group in Pakistan, which resulted in a Pakistani counterstrike, an aerial battle that downed an Indian fighter, and threats to escalate with missile attacks. That the crisis stopped short of war was due in good measure to luck. Next time, New Delhi and Islamabad may be less fortunate, especially if the crisis deviates from past patterns.
What will trigger the next crisis in South Asia? Conventional wisdom holds that it will follow a script common to successive crises since the early 1990s. The pattern starts with a high-casualty terror attack in India, attributed to Pakistan-based militant groups with a long history of carrying out cross-border operations, which then puts the onus on India to calibrate escalation in its response. Just because nearly every crisis between India and Pakistan in the last three decades began with an act of cross-border terrorism, however, does not mean that other potential catalysts should be neglected.
One intriguing alternative deserves scrutiny: Instead of an attack in India that initiates crisis, what if one arose following a proactive Indian operation to seize territory over the Line of Control (LOC) in the portion of the disputed territory of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan? Indian leaders have contemplated such operations in the past, and the current government in India has demonstrated its willingness to take considerable risks, including in the February 2019 crisis. Moreover, New Delhi’s August 2019 decision to revoke the special constitutional status of Kashmir underscores its willingness to reconsider long-standing norms and practices. If the next crisis starts with an Indian operation, the odds are much greater that it will escalate quickly to war for reasons that the conventional South Asia crisis wisdom tends to discount.
Evolving Crisis Behavior and Indian Politics
In the spring of 1990, in the midst of a popular uprising in the Kashmir Valley and a violent Indian security crackdown, cross-border attacks by terrorist groups operating from Pakistan catalyzed an Indo-Pakistan military crisis. Every South Asian crisis since then has fit this pattern, with the exception of the 1999 Kargil War, which the Pakistan Army initiated with an operation to capture Indian guard posts along the LOC. In each instance, Indian decision makers wrestled with whether and how to respond militarily against Pakistan, which New Delhi blamed for aiding and abetting the groups responsible for the attacks. Typically, Indian leaders opted against a direct military response for fear that an escalating conflict could cause far more damage than the initial attack.
Most literature on crisis and conflict in South Asia starts from the premise that past is prologue in terms of catalysts. Analytic debates therefore focus less on how crises start than on how this scenario could escalate. The most consequential issues following from this framing center on India’s punitive options for compelling Pakistan to change its behavior, and the logical challenge of threatening or applying enough force to do so without prompting conflict escalation. Analysts therefore concentrate on India’s choices as the key determinant of escalation. Regular war games and crisis simulations have explored this scenario in great detail.
However, bypassing the question of how South Asian crises begin risks confirmation bias that results in poor planning. Simply put, if analysts continue to uncritically assume that the next crisis will replay the last one, they ignore alternative scenarios that might evolve very differently. Data from recent crisis behavior and changing Indian domestic politics supports the need to revisit assumptions.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the past two crises India has taken more calculated risks with military responses. In September 2016, following an attack on an Indian Army base at the Kashmir town of Uri, India claims it carried out “surgical strikes” against militant “launch pads” in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Pakistan denied that any strikes occurred, and the crisis petered out. But the public reaction in India appears to have vindicated the purported muscular response. Social media, newspaper headlines, and TV chyrons widely affirmed and hyped Modi’s decision to “punish” Pakistan.
It was therefore little surprise that when the next military crisis arrived in February 2019 after a Kashmiri suicide bomber killed 40 Indian police officers near Pulwama, India opted for greater force. Modi authorized an Indian Air Force precision strike on an alleged training facility of Jaish-e-Muhammad, the militant group claiming sponsorship of the suicide attack, near Balakot in the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Though calibrated to minimize the potential for any casualties apart from residents at the facility, India’s cross-border air strike in Pakistani sovereign territory (as opposed to disputed territory in Kashmir) was the first between India and Pakistan since their 1971 war, and the first ever between two nuclear-armed states.
What if India Takes the Initiative?
Instead of waiting for the next terror attack to start yet another crisis, might Modi decide to take the initiative and launch an operation to capture territory in Pakistani Kashmir? This scenario is not implausible, even if its probability remains low. India’s much-debated “Cold Start” doctrine, in theory, is intended for exactly this kind of objective, albeit in the context of retaliation for a terror attack launched from Pakistan. India might see value in a “proactive” cross-border operation along these lines to punish the Pakistan Army and damage its reputation; to establish a new tactical territorial advantage by attempting to redraw the LOC; or to gain leverage over Pakistan for ensuing political negotiations. Past Indian governments would not have authorized a military operation to achieve these objectives, but Modi’s approach to governance is clearly different.
As a leader, Modi is more risk-acceptant than his predecessors, as demonstrated in the 2016 and 2019 crises. He and other senior leaders appear to believe that more violent responses are called for as India seeks to exploit space for military operations against Pakistan that do not encroach nuclear redlines. India’s military actions against Pakistan enjoyed breathless media attention and are widely viewed in India as tactical and strategic successes, despite widely reported doubts about the results.
Modi also revels in the reputation of being a tough leader. He has proclaimed a “new India” that will no longer tolerate attacks from Pakistan. Modi cleverly utilized the Balakot air strikes to bolster his image as India’s watchman (“chowkidar”) in claiming a surprise victory in recent general elections. His August 2019 decision to revoke the independent status of Kashmir has also proved popular domestically, which has led some Indian officials to call for reclaiming the other half of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. Union Minister Amit Shah, for instance, asserted during a Lok Sabha debate, no doubt with some hyperbole, that “Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir also falls under the boundaries of Kashmir. We will sacrifice our lives for it.”
The international environment for India may also be more conducive to risk-taking. Indian officials believe they had the weight of international opinion on their side as they retaliated during the 2016 and 2019 crises, including support from the United States. Of course, an unprovoked operation is not the same as a response to terrorism, and India would risk undermining the moral high ground it has claimed as a result. New Delhi’s September 2019 U.S. charm offensive — including a head-spinning tour of seven think tanks in Washington by Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar — does suggest sensitivity to global opinion that might restrain its adventurism. Yet it is notable that there have been few real international repercussions for either India’s revocation of Kashmir’s status or the heavy-handed security crackdown that followed. If the international community ultimately believes, as India asserts, that Kashmir is an internal matter, then Modi may be more willing to push the boundary — literally.
Seeing the Future in the Past?
What might a proactive Indian operation to grab territory look like? Two historical cases offer some ideas.
The first case involves the Siachen Glacier, a thin slice of frozen land high in the Himalayas. The dispute over Siachen is rooted in differing conceptions of the postcolonial border, which was not fully demarcated in the United Nations-brokered ceasefire to end the first India-Pakistan war in 1947, or when the ceasefire line was converted to the Line of Control following the 1971 war. Both sides claimed ownership of the glacier, but neither maintained any presence there and the area itself was of little strategic value, rendering the point somewhat moot. Starting in the late 1970s, however, India and Pakistan began to suspect each other of making plans to occupy the glacier. In April 1984, India launched Operation Meghdoot (“cloud messenger,” from a Sanskrit poem) to seize the glacier and pre-empt any Pakistani attempt to do the same. Utilizing the cover of challenging spring weather conditions, India airlifted two platoons of soldiers onto the Sia La and Bilafond La passes to take control of the glacier. There, they successfully held off the Pakistani forces that arrived to confront them a few days later. At the end of the initial phase of conflict, India had captured around 1,000 square kilometers of territory, which it continues to hold today.
It is difficult to overstate the audacity of this undertaking. The weather conditions were severe. The only helicopter that could transport soldiers to the necessary heights did so under conditions of extreme risk, and even then ferrying only two men at a time. The military overcame immense logistical hurdles to put together the bare minimum of supplies necessary to sustain the mission in an unfamiliar area with no existing infrastructure. Though not a cross-LOC operation in the sense that the Siachen Glacier was never controlled by Pakistan, India’s broader willingness to engage in risky offensive maneuvers in the name of what were essentially political rather than military objectives is instructive.
The second case involves a similarly bold operation purportedly planned by the Indian Army, but never carried out. As Happymon Jacob describes in his account of this plan, in the summer of 2001 the Indian Army prepared to launch an aggressive cross-border assault on 25–30 Pakistani guard posts along the Line of Control. Codenamed Operation Kabbadi after a popular South Asian contact sport, the plan was to capture the posts, punish the Pakistan Army, and stanch the flow of militants from Pakistan into Jammu and Kashmir. Failing that, Indian planners wanted to at least raise the costs to the Pakistan Army for facilitating cross-border terrorism. Once captured, the Indian Army planned to hold the posts until the government ordered a retreat, which military officials believed would augment the army’s defensive posture and deter further infiltration. A number of successful small-scale operations of a similar kind over the prior year gave military officials confidence that a larger-scale plan could succeed. However, these officials were also aware that a land grab of this magnitude would invite a Pakistani response, a risk which they apparently anticipated in their planning.
It is worth underscoring that the Indian Army conceived of the operation after the nuclearization of the subcontinent in 1998, and also after the Kargil War of 1999. The latter ended without escalation to the nuclear level, which perhaps reassured Indian leaders that Pakistani nuclear redlines could be avoided. The operation never came to pass, however. The Indian government had not yet approved the operation when Al Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11. The ensuing U.S. focus on the region no doubt complicated New Delhi’s decision-making. Had Operation Kabbadi proceeded (an open question given the previous paradigm of restraint in India’s civilian leadership), it is difficult to say what the outcome would have been. However, it is indisputable that such an assault would have represented a significant escalation from regular hostilities along the Line of Control.
Implications for the Next Crisis
As with all historical cases, there are limitations in drawing inferences for contemporary conditions. As compared to 2001, India and Pakistan now have two decades of experience with crises under the nuclear overhang, even as both continue to build out their nuclear arsenals and adapt postures accordingly. India is slowly realizing its global aspirations, giving it more leverage in international politics. China is a more important actor in the region today than 20 years ago, whereas U.S. interests in the region are in flux as Washington seeks to wind down its presence in Afghanistan. Yet, fundamentally, the cases underscore that India can be revisionist in its aims with respect to the Line of Control, whether for political or military reasons. Under the right circumstances, it is conceivable India may opt to challenge the status quo again.
How might a crisis initiated by an Indian cross-border operation differ from the pattern of the past couple of decades? Most critically, it would shift the onus of decision-making to Pakistan. As the aggrieved party, and as the smaller power, Pakistani leaders would face immense pressure to restore deterrence through escalation. Whereas Indian leaders have sought to manage escalation by targeting militant groups and their infrastructure, Pakistan would have no choice but to attack Indian forces directly in order to evict them from what Pakistan perceives as its territory. A calibrated response might be an insufficient demonstration of Pakistan’s resolve to impose high costs on India and prevent further encroachment. Pakistan might therefore attack not just Indian forces over the Line of Control, but could also carry out longer-range strikes on more valuable military targets in India.
Pakistan could also escalate in ways that invite greater risk of engaging nuclear weapons in the conflict, which has been an important element of its strategy in previous episodes. For instance, it might decide to cross an important symbolic threshold by using ballistic or cruise missiles against military targets in India. It could also try to test Indian resolve by dispersing short-range nuclear weapons in the field in an attempt to manipulate Schelling’s “threat that leaves something to chance.” In this regard, it is notable that Pakistani strategists seem to have drawn quite different lessons from the 2019 crisis than their Indian counterparts. Pakistani officials believe they won the last conflict by successfully escalating in response to India’s airstrike, leading to the downing of an Indian MiG-21 aircraft and capture of its pilot. They might also conclude that nuclear signaling — calling a meeting of the National Command Authority in response to Indian threats to carry out missile strikes — succeeded in deterring Indian escalation. If Pakistani leaders believe that escalate-to-deescalate worked in 2019, it is likely they would implement the same strategy in the next crisis.
A crisis initiated by India is also likely to escalate far more quickly. Notably, in the 2016 and 2019 crises, India waited a week or more following the instigating terror attack to prepare and calibrate its responses. But if India commenced a cross-border operation, Pakistan likely would not wait even hours to launch a counter-offensive to disrupt Indian efforts to consolidate its hold on captured territory. In this context, de-escalation and conflict termination also become far more complex. The peak of the crisis following the 2019 Pulwama attack played out in the span of a few days, and arguably de-escalated mostly due to the lucky stroke of Pakistan capturing alive the Indian MiG pilot whom it was able to return. Captured soldiers are considerably easier to give back than territory, and the more aggressive an opening land grab, the more difficult it will be to de-escalate in a condensed time frame.
The stakes of a crisis like this would also be much greater. India would be loath to return any captured territory in the name of de-escalation, especially if the offensive is framed or justified in terms of expanding India’s control over disputed territory. Given rising Indian nationalism, coupled with historical disdain for third-party meddling in Kashmir, outside efforts to arrest the crisis are less likely to result in Indian restraint. For Pakistan, hyped fears of an existential threat from India are likely to reinforce risk-taking to reclaim territory it sees as sovereign. It is unclear that there are any non-military options Pakistan could exercise to incentivize India to return the territory. This could lead to a situation in which both countries find themselves unable to back down and without peaceful paths to resolve the dispute.
Luck is Not a Crisis-Management Strategy
Of course, India may not attempt an operation as audacious as its 1984 occupation of the Siachen Glacier, or as risk-acceptant as its planned 2001 cross-border capture of Pakistani guard posts. Even so, there are ample reasons for analysts to question the standing assumptions about how the next South Asia crisis might begin. Doing so is a necessary first step toward thinking through the full range of possible crises and how states might prepare for them.
With that in mind, scholars and policymakers should analyze and debate several questions: What are the different types of crisis catalysts and how might escalation pathways vary by type? What are the beliefs on each side about crisis management and control, and are there shared ideas about escalation thresholds? And, how are changes in military, surveillance, and other relevant technologies affecting crisis calculations? These are all questions without easy answers, but they demand attention. Preparing for the next crisis on the basis of the last one runs the same risks as planning to fight the next war in the same way as the previous one. Both India and Pakistan, as well as third parties interested in trying to facilitate crisis de-escalation and termination, would be wise to plan for a range of contingencies.
Crisis management in South Asia is hugely consequential. A limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would be disastrous for people in the region, but the effects could spread well beyond South Asia. Preventing the next crisis from escalating to a point at which nuclear weapons might be used is therefore a global imperative. It is far better that the next South Asia crisis be managed, to the extent possible, with careful planning and preparation, rather than counting on luck to see it through.
Toby Dalton is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Gaurav Kalwani is a James C. Gaither junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.