Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Next War or the Last War in South Asia? By Michael Krepon

The Next War or the Last War in South Asia?
By Michael Krepon
Two fundamentally different nuclear futures are conceivable on the subcontinent. One is surprisingly pacific, even without conflict resolution between India and Pakistan. The other is deeply tragic – the standard worse case of a limited conventional war crossing the nuclear threshold. This choice deserves to be a key topic of conversation with Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, who visits Washington this week.

The classic, radioactive scenario spools out from a big explosion on Indian soil that is traced back to a group in Pakistan with prior links to its intelligence services. Both militaries thereafter begin to re-position themselves for a limited war. Pakistan ostentatiously moves missiles around to warn India and spin up Washington to engage in crisis management. New Delhi follows suit. A missile or two is flight-tested. Pakistan’s short-range, nuclear-capable missiles, the Nasr, move closer to likely contact points between the two armies, clarifying deterrence messages and raising the stakes for Indian military engagement.

In this scenario, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is made of sterner stuff than his more reflective predecessors. He authorizes a military riposte. A mushroom cloud is detected on Pakistani soil. Maybe it’s an accident, maybe not. Perhaps it’s a result of an Indian air strike on a Nasr battery.
The standard U.S. crisis management playbook, which is predicated on New Delhi’s ambivalence or disinclination to fight, is thrown out the window. A radioactive battlefield and the possibility of prompt escalation foreclose a trip to the region by the U.S. Secretary of State; the choreography of subsequent visitors is put on hold. Commercial aircraft keep their distance from the region, while embassies desperately make plans to evacuate their nationals from a war zone.

In these chaotic circumstances, national leaders who have failed to engage constructively prior to this impasse must now try to figure out what happened and how to prevent more mushroom clouds. Confident assumptions of nuclear deterrence will by now have turned a sharp corner, with prospects of widespread confusion and panic ahead. Crucial decisions must be made hurriedly. The unthinkable has happened. This heavily freighted scenario has been played out in many war games that typically end badly.

Now let’s try to imagine a very different scenario. Let’s focus on the continued absence of a triggering event of Indian soil. It’s been seven long years since the 2008 Mumbai assaults. The group behind this assault, the Lashkar e-Toiba, is old news. Its leaders are living sedate lives in comfortable surroundings. Many hotheads have shifted allegiances and moved elsewhere, where the action is. Young men itching for a fight have no shortage of battlefields.

Circumstances have changed; Pakistan’s military and intelligence services win no prizes for another big explosion in India. They are fighting to clear their homeland of remnants of the Pakistan Taliban they helped spawn. Even if New Delhi backs down after another attack, it’s the same old story line of Pakistan either being complicit in a major terrorist attack or being incompetent to stop it. Pakistan’s image and economy take big hits.
Diplomatic sparring is increasing over Kashmir, but barriers and heavy fencing across the Kashmir divide limit the amount of trouble Pakistan can make in the Valley. The future of Afghanistan is more subject to change, but Afghanistan is a mess.

Now envision Modi’s calculations. His star is beginning to fade. A splendid little war with Pakistan entails great risk, and will surely mess up prospects for economic growth. This calculus led his predecessors not to respond to previous explosions even before Pakistan’s public embrace tactical nuclear weapons. The existence of these dangerous weapons could now reinforce Modi’s calculus of restraint.

This alternative scenario sounds too good to be true: a Pakistan that doesn’t spark another major crisis on the subcontinent, and an India that would rather grow its economy than fight a limited conventional war with Pakistan. These circumstances won’t lead to better relations as long as Modi refuses to engage Pakistan except on terms that no Pakistani leader can accept; but neither does non-engagement become a predicate for war.

A scenario in which war is no longer an option on the subcontinent also suggests that when New Delhi is ready to improve ties with Pakistan, positive results might be achievable. But war cannot be ruled out, even if Rawalpindi is systematically reducing space for the LeT to operate, because Pakistan is home to a great many wild men and a fast-growing nuclear arsenal. And Modi remains a mystery, especially under fire.
Have India and Pakistan fought their last war? Tipping the scales toward peace requires the Obama administration to press General Sharif to prevent events that could trigger the next war, while pressing the Modi government to re-engage with Pakistan.

Michael Krepon is the Co-founder of the Stimson Center.

This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk, November 17th, 2015

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