A prankster put India and Pakistan on the brink of war.  That this is possible demonstrates just how fragile that relationship is. That it didn’t escalate, though, tells us something important, too.

AP sets the stage:

The call by a man identifying himself as Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee was put through to President Asif Ali Zardari on Nov. 28, said the security official, who declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the issue. “India through diplomatic channels has informed the Pakistani Foreign Ministry that Pranab Mukherjee made no such call,” he said. “Now what still needs to be checked is who made this threatening call.”

Dawn newspaper said the country’s air force was put on high alert in response to the telephone call. It said it came from a New Delhi number, but that Indian officials believed the caller ID could have been manipulated.  A day after the call, two Pakistani security officials warned the government would pull its troops from the anti-terrorism fight along the border with Afghanistan in order to respond to any Indian military mobilization. During a briefing, one of those officials said someone from the Indian Foreign Ministry had called “a top Pakistani personality” and threatened military action if Pakistan did not cooperate with New Delhi.

The rising tensions between the two rivals prompted an intense round of international telephone diplomacy that night and into the next day. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to Zardari and Mukherjee.  Dawn reported that Rice asked Mukherjee why he took such a threatening tone with Zardari. He replied he had had no contact with the president, the newspaper reported, in what apparently led to the hoax being uncovered.

India’s Economic Times adds:

According to the Dawn newspaper, as the phone call ended many in the president’s office were convinced that the “Indians had started beating the war drums.” Intense diplomatic and military activity started in Islamabad, the report said further.  […] But “for nearly 24 hours over the weekend the incident continued to send jitters across the world. To some world leaders the probability of an accidental war appeared very high,” the newspaper reported, citing several unnamed Pakistani political, diplomatic and security sources.

The fact that there isn’t a secure means of telephone communication between the leadership of these two historic rivals is stunning. Then again, as Henry Chu and Laura King report for the Los Angeles Times, the fact that military confrontation was avoided means that leaders on both sides understand that war could be catastrophic and are acting accordingly.

Any war would be financially devastating, especially at a time of worldwide economic downturn. India’s economic juggernaut has lost some steam; and even more dire, Pakistan has had to appeal to the International Monetary Fund to keep its economy afloat. Foreign investment in both countries, which fled during a 2001-02 standoff, would vanish once again in the event of an armed clash.  “No one can afford it,” said Abhay Matkar, a former Indian army major in Mumbai. “Both countries are not ready for war, and it will not happen.”

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Another factor leading to the relatively restrained response may be the lessons learned from a somewhat similar attack seven years ago this month — an incident that some say almost led both countries to press the nuclear button.

[…]

Part of India’s forbearance, some analysts say, is because it ultimately gained little from the 2001-02 military faceoff. A peace process initiated in 2003 has improved the air somewhat, but real progress toward resolving the dispute over Kashmir, the divided Himalayan region that lies at the heart of the two countries’ animus, has been fitful and elusive. “The step taken in 2001 and 2002 was not the wisest. Maybe they learned from that,” said Ved Marwah, an expert on Indo-Pakistani relations at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

They go on to note that a new generation of political leadership in both countries, the fact that both have stronger relations with the United States that they are loathe to jeopardize, and the dual interest in suppressing terrorists are also factors in the cooler response to the Mumbai crisis. 

None of this means that war is off the table.  The situation is quite precarious.  But the fact that both sides are behaving as rational actors, demonstrating a grasp of the gravity of the situation, is quite encouraging.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.