Trend lines in the subcontinent are poor and will not improve until there is substantive dialogue between India and Pakistan. Hopes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would pull a “Nixon goes to China” maneuver with Pakistan have been dashed, at least for now. Modi either has no Pakistan policy or has a policy not to engage with Pakistan. It’s worth recalling, however, that President Richard Nixon didn’t pursue his China gambit early on. And that General Pervez Musharraf introduced himself to India with a land grab and ended his presidential run trying to reach a settlement over Kashmir. It’s never a good idea to type cast or pigeonhole ambitious leaders. Rather, it’s usually a good idea to look for openings to improve testy relations between states that possess nuclear weapons.
For now, however, relations are most definitely sour and are likely to remain that way until Modi shifts gears from a one-topic agenda item for talks, focused on terrorism. This stance, like Islamabad’s renewed embrace of the Kashmir issue and the compilation of dossiers of Indian trouble making in Baluchistan and elsewhere, serve as placeholders until Modi is ready for serious, sustained engagement. Pakistan hasn’t won a favorable UN resolution on Kashmir since 1957, but old chestnuts keep being thrown into the fire.
The avoidance of nuclear dangers now depends on the absence of a big explosion in India that can be traced back to a group like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, with its historical ties to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. There have been no big explosions since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, seven long years ago. Perhaps this suggests control as well as influence by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services over the LeT, for which they cannot take public credit. Perhaps this suggests success in a strategy of defanging the LeT in return for monetary incentives and other benefits, such as not prosecuting its leaders. Perhaps Rawalpindi has internalized the realization that the damage to Pakistan’s image and economic prospects resulting from these attacks far exceed the satisfaction gained by causing India pain and embarrassment. Perhaps Modi’s reputation as a hard-liner has served as a deterrent. Or perhaps another attack is in the offing. Most of us just don’t know the answers to this riddle; those who do aren’t talking.
In the meantime, Pakistan and India are increasing their nuclear arsenals, with Pakistan doing so faster than India. Rawalpindi’s nuclear deterrent includes tactical nuclear weapons of varying kinds, to dissuade New Delhi from carrying out cross-border conventional thrusts in response to another Mumbai-like attack. Since tactical nuclear weapons are the least safe and secure in Pakistan’s arsenal, and since these and longer-range, nuclear-capable launchers will be moved around in the midst of a serious crisis, nuclear risks will grow significantly in the event of another confrontation. Pakistan’s military leaders seem unpersuaded by arguments that mixing tactical nuclear weapons into conventional battle plans is a lousy idea.
Combat between ground forces, backed up by air power, will greatly accentuate the risk that there will be a battlefield nuclear detonation. What might be done to defuse India-Pakistan relations and break the back of the nuclear competition on the subcontinent, the way that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev broke the back of the superpower nuclear arms race?
Permit me a flight of fancy – and suspend disbelief for a brief moment. Reagan and Gorbachev were out-of-the box thinkers and risk takers. They set the ball rolling by declaring that, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Words can be empty and devoid of content. They can also have the power to shape perceptions and actions. These particular words undermined programs for nuclear war-fighting strategies of deterrence and paved the way for significant nuclear arms reductions.
So allow me to put words in Prime Minister Modi’s mouth – words that could greatly reduce nuclear dangers and upend Pakistan’s anti-India narrative. First, Modi might announce that, in the event of another attack on Indian soil by extremist organizations based in Pakistan, he will not initiate a ground campaign across borders. Instead, he will consider other military options. Or, like his predecessors, he might conclude that Pakistan is not worth another war that risks uncontrolled escalation and damage to the Indian economy. The blame for a new crisis, like its predecessors, would fall squarely on Pakistan, which would once again suffer diplomatic and economic setbacks without India having to strike a blow.
Pakistan’s hawks will not believe Modi’s stated intention, any more than they believe India’s pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. How, then, might Modi be more persuasive? By announcing that if Rawalpindi is intent on mortgaging Pakistan’s future by spending Soviet-like budget percentages for military-related accounts – including spending to repel a ground campaign that India does not intend to wage — it is entirely free to do so. Likewise, if Rawalpindi wishes to grow its nuclear arsenal at a faster rate than any other state possessing nuclear weapons, it will not hear even one muted complaint from New Delhi. India, Modi might say, will continue to grow its arsenal at its own pace, giving priority to social welfare and electricity over nuclear weapons.
These statements would also be met with disbelief by Pakistan’s hawks, just as hawks in the United States could not believe Mikhail Gorbachev’s stated intent to take away Washington’s enemy image of the Soviet Union. Since Modi, like Gorbachev, will continue to spend money on conventional and nuclear forces, hawks in Pakistan will find reason to continue to plan against worst cases. So what else, in this flight of fancy, might Modi say or do?
Modi might re-energize back-channel talks between India and Pakistan on a long-overdue Kashmir settlement. The outlines of a settlement are well known: there would be a permanent moratorium on firing across the Kashmir divide; borders would not change but neither would they become impediments to improved relations; security forces would be thinned out on both sides and greater autonomy given to locals; economic trade would significantly increase across multiple gateways, and broader regional economic integration plans would be implemented.
Kashmir isn’t a Gordian knot; it is well known how to untie this dispute. These plans have long awaited Indian and Pakistani leaders strong enough to override interests that are deeply invested in familiar posturing. A civilian prime minister in Pakistan cannot take the lead is dispute resolution, but might be able to follow Modi’s lead – if the costs to Pakistan of rejecting a fair plan and the incentives to accept it are meaningful. Even if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in unable to reach a settlement along these lines, a strong Indian government would gain ground internationally by proposing it, while opening a release valve for growing disaffection in the Kashmir Valley.
This scenario is currently implausible. It’s easier to make the same old speeches, while peace making entails risk. Autocracies can turn on a dime; vigorous democracies cannot. Right flanks have blocking power and bureaucracies do not get paid to envision improbable success stories. There is no welcome relief on the horizon from the impasse in India-Pakistan relations, marked by growing nuclear dangers.
Nothing could upend deeply ritualized hostility and reduce nuclear dangers on the subcontinent more than this Nobel Prize-worthy script. Might Modi be capable of good surprises after taking missteps, just as Musharraf was?
But enough of this daydreaming. It’s time once again to visit Pakistan.