A large-scale war between India and Pakistan is unthinkable
The Pakistani leadership has time and again expressed its willingness to resolve India-Pakistan disputes through peaceful means for the sake of regional economic security and cooperation. But India's domestic political dynamisms have discouraged the Modi government from restarting a result-oriented dialogue process that could permanently lower tensions between the neighbors.
The situation between the nuclear-armed countries remains complex and volatile despite the restoration of a ceasefire along the Line of Control. On February 25, 2021, the India and Pakistan militaries made a joint announcement of a renewed 2003 ceasefire at the LoC. They recommitted themselves to the agreement and agreed to address the ‘core issues’ that could undermine peace and stability. However, many security analysts remained skeptical about their pledges to peace.
The Global Trends 2040 report released on April 7 and the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment published on April 9, predicted the likelihood of strategic instability in South Asia. The first noted that India and Pakistan may stumble “into a large-scale war neither side wants, especially following a terrorist attack that the Indian government judges to be significant.”
The second said that crises between India and Pakistan are likely to become more intense, risking an escalatory cycle.
The US intelligence community has said that under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, India is more likely to respond with military force to perceived or real Pakistani provocations, and that heightened tensions raised the possibility of conflict between the two neighbors. Unrest in Kashmir or a militant attack in India have been flagged as potential flashpoints.
Both reports’ assessments are debatable, especially after the announcement of a ceasefire and India and Pakistan’s militaries’ strategies to pull back their offensive units from the LoC. Additionally, they skilfully avoided the escalation of a conflict during the post-Pulwama military standoff. However, one cannot completely repudiate the findings of the American intelligence community.
The Indian and Pakistani ruling elites understand that large-scale war can spiral to nuclear weapons use-- which is not winnable and prohibitively costly.
Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
India and Pakistan have continuously been expanding and programming diversification of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, intending to improve qualitatively and quantitatively their nuclear stockpiles and to field their nuclear triads. The unrestrained arms race contains inherent ingredients of strategic instability that may lead to the inadvertent crossing of the nuclear threshold. Besides, they continue employing hybrid warfare tactics to bleed each other.
The Indian and Pakistani ruling elites understand that large-scale war can spiral to nuclear weapons use-- which is not winnable and prohibitively costly. Therefore, they intentionally seek to avoid high-intensity conflict and particularly large-scale war because of the prohibitive nuclear weapons use devastation cost.
Realistically, India and Pakistan will remain committed to a nuclear taboo—a normative inhibition against the first use of nuclear weapons—despite New Delhi's doctrinal drift away from its No First Use nuclear policy and Islamabad’s quest for full spectrum deterrence nuclear capability. Hence, the risk of large-scale war will remain low despite the likelihood of border skirmishes.
The encouraging sign is that the countries have been adhering to nuclear agreements to avoid the accidental and inadvertent use of nuclear weapons. They regularly exchange the list of their nuclear installations and facilities on January 1 every year, in accordance with Article-II of the Agreement on Prohibition of Attacks against Nuclear Installations and Facilities between Pakistan and India, signed on December 31, 1988.
The February ceasefire agreement has raised hopes of India and Pakistan restoring full diplomatic relations that were downgraded after the Modi government revoked Article 370 and annexation of the disputed state of Kashmir on August 5, 2019. Admittedly, the regional and global strategic environment’s trends and the fraught history of peace agreements between hostile neighbors reveal that the durability of the current ceasefire could be shortlived.
There were reports last week that the UAE is mediating between the nuclear-armed rivals to resume a healthy and functional relationship. Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba said that the UAE played a role “in bringing Kashmir escalation down and created a ceasefire, hopefully ultimately leading to restoring diplomats and getting the relationship back to a healthy level.”
India and Pakistan seem sagacious enough to avoid any outright confrontation at the LoC that can spiral out of control to a large-scale war between them due to the fear of nuclear catastrophe. They could refrain from initiating a conflict that undermines the nuclear taboo. However, without a sustained dialogue process, the situation between the countries remains prone to miscalculation and conflict escalation-- even to the nuclear level.
- Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @zafar_jaspal