Nuclear threats and opportunity

Even in this eventful week, nothing came close to matching the perilous significance of the unprecedented airstrikes between Pakistan and India, escalating the risk of war between two nuclear powers.

Headlines in the United States focused more on President Donald Trump’s former lawyer turning on him before Congress and on the president’s fruitless Vietnam meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Though that made for one of the Trump administration’s more difficult weeks, it is the South Asian nail-biter that deserves our urgent attention.

India’s strike on what it said was a terrorist camp inside Pakistan proper on Tuesday followed the next day by Pakistan’s responding strike on Indian-administered Kashmir mark the first time any nuclear power has carried out airstrikes in another nuclear power’s territory.

“The escalation ladder … between these two nuclear-armed neighbors remains very steep,” warned the Atlantic Council’s Shuja Nawaz. Given both sides’ standoff weapons that can be launched from air platforms and given increased talk of using miniaturized tactical nuclear weapons, Nawaz saw a risk that “a full-scale war, involving dozens of nuclear weapons, could engulf the subcontinent with grave consequences for the whole region and the world.”

Fortunately, former cricketer and now-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan defused further immediate escalation with the release on Friday evening (local time) of an Indian pilot who had been captured after he ejected over Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

However, don’t make the mistake of shrugging off the week’s events as just another one of the occasional Indian-Pakistani dust-ups. There were aspects of this military exchange that were qualitatively new and troublesome. The changing nature of both countries’ nuclear arsenals raises new dangers.

Beyond that, a hardening of politics in India and Pakistan’s inability to seriously take on jihadi terrorist groups operating from its territory contribute to a combustive mix that won’t go away even after India’s national elections in April. Hence, it’s time for the two countries’ international partners to insist they engage urgently in talks to better manage their relationship; and to find ways to assist Pakistan in deradicalizing and deweaponizing the jihadi groups that still exist inside its borders.

“I ask India: ‘With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?” said Khan after a meeting of the National Security Council and the authority that controls Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. “Let’s sit and settle this with talks.”

Relations between Pakistan and India, though always tense, spiraled downward after a terrorist suicide attack on Feb. 14 in Kashmir killed 40 Indian policemen. Though it was carried out by a local Kashmiri, the Pakistan-based military group Jaish-e-Mohammed, or JeM, claimed responsibility. It was the deadliest terrorist event in India in over a decade.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even if he had not been facing elections, would have had to respond.

On Feb. 26, India launched an air strike against what the country’s officials said was a terrorist camp run by the JeM in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, within Pakistani territory. India claimed 300 jihadis were killed, while Pakistani officials said India merely pounded an uninhabited jungle where a camp once existed.

Whatever the truth, Indian jets had penetrated Pakistani territory apparently undetected, executing an assault within 60 miles of the country’s capital, Islamabad. The following day, Pakistani aircraft struck back at several sites in Indian-administered Kashmir, without giving too many details. In the air fight that followed, as Indian aircraft apparently gave chase, both sides claim to have shot down each other’s aircraft. All that’s certain is that one Indian jet was downed and its pilot ejected.

In all the hostilities over the years around the disputed state of Kashmir, this week marked the first time since both countries gained nuclear power status that either side has sent fighter jets across the frontier. In the past, the modus operandi has been exchanges of artillery barrages or, on occasion, sending soldiers on limited, cross-border missions. The airstrikes of this week have changed the understood rules of engagement, resulting in risks that were the greatest since the two sides’ all-out war of 1971.

This week’s Economist, with “Modi’s dangerous moment” on the cover, reminds readers that at the time of the last big India-Pakistan clash, in 1999, “both possessed nuclear weapons but had only limited means to deliver them.” India today has 140 warheads, and Pakistan has perhaps ten more than that. Pakistan also has tactical nuclear weapons with a range of about 50 miles.

There’s a logic that argues that all those nuclear weapons are a stabilizing factor. Under such a nuclear overhang, the argument goes that both sides limit just how far they will go in a conventional war (and would never return to the sort of conflict of 1971) because the danger of a devastating nuclear exchange deters them from doing so. This argument continues that two nuclear-armed states have never gone to war with each other.

It would be folly to bet on that logic holding, particularly in a situation where the domestic politics of both countries could create the conditions for conflict.

While the onus clearly falls on Pakistan to rout out the terrorist networks within its own territory, India’s sheer economic and military power bestows on it the responsibility to act as a stabilizing force in the region. India’s population is six times as big as Pakistan’s, and its economic power is eight times that of its Western neighbor.

Sometimes it takes a scare of the sort this past week has brought to prompt reasonable actors to take long-required steps toward reducing regional tensions. With its recently deepened relations with Pakistan, China could also play a useful role, starting by lifting its veto at the UN Security Council so that the Pakistan-based JeM can be designated as a terrorist organization.

A peaceful and economically interconnected South Asia would benefit not only Pakistan and India, but also the greater neighborhood, particularly Afghanistan.

Beyond defusing the current threat of war, it would be wise for international actors to leverage it to a more lasting solution. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

This article originally appeared on

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. Subscribe to his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter.

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Image: India’s Border Security Force soldiers patrolled the fenced border with Pakistan in Ranbir Singh Pura sector near Jammu, India, on February 26. (Reuters/Mukesh Gupta)