The latest violence isn’t the first time India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations, have hurled men and arms at each other. It’s not even the first time in living memory for the young soldiers and airmen who are doing the fighting. We don’t need to recap the long and tortured history of the subcontinent’s bloody division in the aftermath of the Second World War. We don’t need to talk about the second India-Pakistan War, or the third or even the fourth. Let’s just look at what’s happen so far in the 21st century.
There was a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in late 2001, which India quickly blamed on terror groups based in Pakistan. (Pakistan, for its part, said that the Indians staged the attack themselves.) Troops were massed, artillery fire exchanged, some airstrikes launched. After almost a year of skirmishing and tension, the conflict petered out. In 2008, the horrific terror attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai seemed to set the two countries on a similar path — troops were mobilized, preparations for war made. But this time, diplomacy worked. After a month, the troops were stood down, the missiles taken off the jets.
It wasn’t exactly the dawn of a new era of peace. The two sides remained dug in along the border of Kashmir, a region both claim, and continued to skirmish there regularly. But there was, at least, a sense of optimism after the 2008 war scare. Twice before, in 1999 and again in 2001, as noted above, the two sides had exchanged actual fire. Soldiers had died in battle by the hundreds. And all of this was while both sides knew the other was armed with nuclear weapons: India tested its first bomb in 1974, and Pakistan, in 1998. In 2008, jaw-jaw prevented war, war.
If all the above history seems somehow familiar, it might be because it’s happening again right now. On Feb. 14, a convoy of Indian paramilitary officers was struck by a car bomber in Kashmir. Forty Indian officers were killed, almost that same number wounded. The attack was claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamist terror group based in Pakistan. It didn’t take long before the sides were exchanging artillery fire again, and earlier this week, India launched a surprisingly bold offensive into Pakistan itself. That’s an important point: India did not retaliate in an area of Kashmir controlled by Pakistani forces, it sent warplanes into Pakistan proper to strike at what it called terrorist training camps (Pakistan says the Indians bombed a clump of trees and some dirt). There have been several violent exchanges since then, including one in which an Indian fighter jet was brought down by Pakistani forces. The pilot survived but was captured and is now in custody, though Pakistan has said it intends to release him on Friday.
What happens next? The good news is that neither side, we can assume, wants a war. India and Pakistan are both armed to the teeth with conventional weapons, and the contested border in Kashmir is in rugged, mountainous terrain. It wouldn’t be easy for either side to wage a war there, and any conflict would be bloody and prolonged, for limited gain. That’s assuming the best-case scenario, too. The worst-case scenario, obviously, is that either through accident or recklessness, what started with a terror attack escalates into a nuclear exchange that sees both sides targeting each other’s civilian populations.
The nuclear arsenals of both India and Pakistan are smaller than the ones possessed by either side during the Cold War. Both India and Pakistan are thought to have in the range of 150 bombs each, and the bombs aren’t quite so powerful as the ones fielded by the United States, Russia or China today. But they are certainly more powerful than the ones used on Japan in 1945, typically several times more so, and would wreak unbelievable damage if used on civilian targets. Even a limited exchange of warheads between the two countries would instantly be among the worst humanitarian catastrophes in history, and that’s not even considering the danger of radioactive fallout or possible long-term environmental effects.
Both sides know this and would want to avoid it. And we can hope that the fact that they’ve come close to the brink of all-out war before, in recent memory, without actually going over the edge means that they won’t; that the leadership on both sides is mature enough to avoid the kind of deliberate conventional escalation or reckless action that would lead to the ultimate disaster.
We can hope that, and should. But we should not accept that, or take it for granted. The previous close calls may well have been learning experiences that make future wars less likely. But it’s just as easy, particularly given the current tensions, to conclude exactly the opposite — that the two sides haven’t learned anything at all except how to fight each other more effectively, and that the avoidance of war thus far is simply a matter of India, Pakistan and the world catching a series of lucky breaks.
I believe in luck. But it has a habit of running out at inconvenient moments. The question we need to ask ourselves is simple: how long can two nuclear-armed countries, with long, bitter histories of sectarian and religious hatred and violently contested borders, spend going to the brink and back without eventually, even unintentionally, going over it?
If your answer is anything but “indefinitely,” then you should be keeping an eye on Kashmir right now. Things are getting interesting over there. Let’s hope they don’t stay that way for long.